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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 13, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mark Donovan Williams seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). This court has jurisdiction to review the Acting Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After reviewing the record, this court concludes that the Acting Commissioner's decision must be affirmed.


A claimant is considered "disabled" under the Social Security Act if: (1) he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) "by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, " and (2) the impairment is "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Hill v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 1144, 1149-50 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S. C.§ 1382c(a)(3); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). In steps one through four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant (1) has not engaged in SGA since his or her alleged disability onset date; (2) suffers from severe physical or mental impairments; (3) has severe impairments that meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments that automatically quality as disabilities under the Social Security Act; and (4) has a residual functional capacity (RFC) that prevents the claimant from performing his or her past relevant work. Id An RFC is the most an individual can do in a work setting despite the total limiting effects of all his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1), and Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps to establish his or her disability.

At the fifth step, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in a significant number in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Gomez v. Chater, 74 F.3d 967, 970 (9th Cir. 1996). If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, the claimant is considered disabled for purposes of awarding benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)(1), 416.920(a). On the other hand, if the Commissioner can meet its burden, the claimant is deemed to be not disabled for purposes of determining benefits eligibility. Id.

The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed if it is based on the proper legal standards and its findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).

When reviewing the decision, the court must weigh all of the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. The Commissioner, not the reviewing court, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and the Commissioner's decision must be upheld in instances where the evidence supports either outcome. Reddick v. Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1998). If, however, the Commissioner did not apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and making the decision, the decision must be set aside. Id. at 720.


Plaintiff was born on January 25, 1957 and continued his education through the tenth grade. Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB on March 14, 2006, alleging that he has been disabled since April 1, 1997. Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing on November 29, 2006. On January 13, 2009, plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing, and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision on February 2, 2009, denying his application for benefits. On March 18, 2010, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case to address plaintiffs "maximum residual functional capacity, obtain the missing third party evidence and place it in the file, obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of the [plaintiffs] mental impairments and obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert." Tr. 18.[1] An ALJ conducted a second hearing on July 13, 2011. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as an independent vocational expert (VE) and a medical expert.

On July 26, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since April 1, 1997, the alleged onset date. Tr. 21, Finding 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable severe impairments: bipolar disorder and substance abuse disorder in combination. Tr. 21, Finding 3. After considering plaintiffs severe and non-severe impairments, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs impairments, including the substance use disorders, medically equal section(s) 12.09 of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Tr. 21, Finding 4. Pursuant to the social security disability drug and alcohol analysis, the ALJ continued the disability evaluation to determine whether plaintiff would continue to be disabled if his drug and alcohol use stopped. Tr. 23. The ALJ found that, if drug and alcohol use stopped, plaintiff would have no severe impairments at the second step of the analysis. Tr. 23.

On September 7, 2012, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action seeking judicial review.


Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to find that plaintiff had a medically determinable impairment of schizophrenia. Specifically, plaintiff explains that he was twice diagnosed by treating physicians with schizophrenia. First, in 1973, R. Ditmore, M.D., diagnosed plaintiff upon intake to Dammasch State Hospital with "schizophrenia, schizo-effective type." Tr. 1086. Plaintiffs diagnosis upon discharge was "psychosis with drug intoxication" but the notes did not explain that the initial diagnosis was inaccurate. Tr. 1099. On April 4, 1974, plaintiff was readmitted to Dammasch State Hospital. Upon readmittance, Shirley Deale, M.D., diagnosed plaintiff with "acute schizophrenic episode." Tr. 1101. Upon discharge five months later, plaintiff was diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis, manic phase." Tr. 1115. ...

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