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Waldner v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 18, 2015

SCOTT A. WALDNER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Kathryn Tassinari, Brent Wells, HARDER, WELLS, BARON & MANNING, P.C., Eugene, OR, Attorneys for plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, Oregon, John C. Lamont, Social Security Administration, Office of the General Counsel, Seattle, Washington, Attorneys for defendant.


ANN AIKEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Scott Waldner brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") final decision denying his application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI") under Title II of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this case is dismissed.


Plaintiff filed for SSI on April 29, 2010. Tr. 140-43. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 88-95. On July 31, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Richard A. Say, wherein plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a medical expert ("ME") and a vocational expert ("VE"). Tr. 30-59. On August 30, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 7-23. After the Appeals Court denied his request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-4.


Plaintiff, who was born on November 3, 1970, was 37 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 41 years old at the time of the hearing. On April 1, 2010, he protectively filed his application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of December 7, 2007, due to autism and depression. Tr. 10, 140-43, 161-67; see also Pl.'s Br. 1. Plaintiff graduated high school and completed some college course work. Tr. 217, 274, 285. He was previously employed at a cabinet making company, a landscaping company, a mill, a fast food restaurant, and a recycling facility. Tr. 42, 44 217-18. While working as a cabinet maker from 1994 to 1999, plaintiff was convicted of first degree sexual abuse and was incarcerated from 2000 to 2006. Tr. 217-18. He then worked at the landscaping company for approximately one year but stopped working after he was incarcerated for a probation violation. Tr. 42, 217.


The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected... to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).


The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

At step two, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, she is not disabled.

Next, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must determine that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national and local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.966.


At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. Tr. 12. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had a severe mental impairment with various diagnoses of bipolar disorder; autism spectrum disorder; pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger's disorder, arising from the same series of alleged symptoms. Tr. 12-13. The ALJ also determined that plaintiff had non-severe impairments of left ankle pain and left shoulder pain. Tr. 12. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 14.

Because plaintiff did not establish disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "a full range of work at all exertional levels but with nonexertional limitations":

He is limited to performing unskilled work and routine tasks requiring no public interactions and no more than superficial interaction with co-workers with no close cooperation or coordination. He will need reminders every two hours or so to stay on task.

Tr. 15.

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.965. Tr. 17. At step five, the ALJ determined that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform despite his impairments, such as groundskeeper, landscaper, industrial cleaner, and laundry worker. Tr. 18. ...

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