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Hartel v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 26, 2018

JACOB H. HARTEL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,[1] Defendant.

          RICHARD F. MCGINTY McGinty & Belcher, Attorneys Attorneys for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney RENATA GOWIE MICHAEL W. PILE, RYAN TA LU Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANNA J. BROWN, UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jacob H. Hartel seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) in which the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner and DISMISSES this matter.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for DIB and SSI benefits on October 31, 2012. Tr. 14.[2] Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of August 15, 2008. Tr. 14. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on May 26, 2015. Tr. 14, 34-87. Plaintiff, a vocational expert (VE), and a medical expert testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing. A supplemental hearing was held on September 4, 2015. Tr. 14, 106-38. Plaintiff was present and represented by an attorney at the supplemental hearing, and a medical expert testified.

         On September 24, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion in which he found Plaintiff is not disabled and, therefore, is not entitled to benefits. Tr. 14-27. On October 18, 2015, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 10. On January 26, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-5. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On March 24, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on May 19, 1982. Tr. 331. Plaintiff was thirty-three years old at the time of the first hearing. Plaintiff has a high-school education and one year of college. Tr. 39. The ALJ found Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a fast-food worker, graphic designer, kitchen helper, and cashier. Tr. 26-27.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to severe neck/shoulder/back spasms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fibromyalgia, irritable-bowel syndrome (IBS), attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. Tr. 365.

         Except as noted, Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence. After carefully reviewing the medical records, this Court adopts the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence. See Tr. 17-26.

         STANDARDS

         The initial burden of proof rests on the claimant to establish disability. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). To meet this burden, a claimant must demonstrate his inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The ALJ must develop the record when there is ambiguous evidence or when the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the evidence. McLeod v. Astrue, 640 F.3d 881, 885 (9th Cir. 2011)(quoting Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459-60 (9th Cir. 2001)).

         The district 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 as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See also Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Molina, 674 F.3d. at 1110-11 (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009)). It is more than a mere scintilla [of evidence] but less than a preponderance. Id. (citing Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690).

         The ALJ is responsible for evaluating a claimant's testimony, resolving conflicts in the medical evidence, and resolving ambiguities. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). The court must weigh all of the evidence whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006).

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         I. The Regulatory Sequential Evaluation

         At Step One the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I). See also Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011).

         At Step Two the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant does not have any medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         At Step Three the claimant is disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724. The criteria for the listed impairments, known as Listings, are enumerated in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (Listed Impairments).

         If the Commissioner proceeds beyond Step Three, she must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of the sustained, work-related physical and mental activities the claimant can still do on a regular and continuing basis despite his limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). See also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. “A ‘regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent schedule.” SSR 96-8p, at *1. In other words, the Social Security Act does not require complete incapacity to be disabled. Taylor v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 659 F.3d 1228, 1234-35 (9th Cir. 2011)(citing Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         At Step Four the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant retains the RFC to perform work he has done in the past. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         If the Commissioner reaches Step Five, she must determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724-25. Here the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Lockwood v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010). The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a VE or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (or the grids) set forth in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1), 416.920(g)(1).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At Step One the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2008, Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. Tr. 17.

         At Step Two the ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of musculoskeletal complaints related to the trapezius, left leg, and low back; fibromyalgia; gastrointestinal issues; depression; and marijuana use. Tr. 17.

         At Step Three the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. Tr. 18. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations: cannot climb tall ladders or work near heights; cannot crawl; should not push or pull objects above the light-exertional level of twenty pounds; cannot perform intense twisting of the upper body; cannot perform high-stress work; cannot work in large groups of people; cannot perform security work; cannot be in charge of the safety of others; and cannot perform fast-paced production work. The ALJ found Plaintiff is able to perform occasional postural movements, to perform occasional overhead work, to work independently, and to have five or ten minute interactions with the general public. The ALJ also found Plaintiff would be off-task for six percent of the workday, would move at a low to average pace but within the mean average, and would have to stand and to stretch for one to three minutes every hour. Tr. 21.

         At Step Four the ALJ concluded Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a cashier. Tr. 26. Thus, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff is not disabled and, therefore, is not entitled to benefits. Tr. 26-27. Accordingly, the ALJ was not required to proceed to Step Five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred when he (1) discounted Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony, (2) improperly rejected the lay-witness testimony of Plaintiff's mother, (3) improperly evaluated the medical evidence of two examining physicians, and (4) ...


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