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House v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 3, 2019

GRETCHEN C. HOUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Secretary Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          H. RUSSEL HOLLAND UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is an action for judicial review of the denial of disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff Gretchen Charmaine House has timely filed her opening brief, [1] to which defendant, Andrew M. Saul, [2] has timely responded. Oral argument was not requested and is not deemed necessary.

         Procedural Background

         On July 22, 2016, plaintiff filed applications for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging that she became disabled on July 13, 2016. Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to a learning disability, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and severe depression. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, and plaintiff requested a hearing. After an administrative hearing on April 6, 2018, an administrative law judge (ALJ) denied plaintiff's application. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. On March 26, 2019, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's May 10, 2018 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On April 17, 2019, plaintiff commenced this action in which she asks the court to review the Commissioner's final decision.

         General Background

         Plaintiff was born on July 3, 1969. Plaintiff was 47 years old on her alleged onset date. Plaintiff was in special education services while in school. She received a GED in her 20s. Plaintiff's past relevant work was as a 4-1-1 operator, janitor, bagger, and busser.

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ first found that plaintiff met “the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020.”[3]

         The ALJ then applied the five-step sequential analysis used to determine whether an individual is disabled.[4]

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 13, 2016, the alleged onset date. . . .”[5]

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: depression, and mild intellectual disability. . . .”[6]

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. . . .”[7] The ALJ considered Listings 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders), 12.05 (intellectual disorder), 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders), and 12.15 (trauma- and stressor-related disorders). The ALJ considered the “paragraph B” criteria and found that plaintiff had moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; marked limitations as to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and moderate limitations as to adapting or managing oneself.[8] But “[b]ecause the claimant's mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘extreme' limitation, ” the ALJ found that “the ‘paragraph B' criteria are not satisfied.”[9] The ALJ also found that the “paragraph C” criteria were not met.[10]

         “Between steps three and four, the ALJ must, as an intermediate step, assess the claimant's RFC.” Bray v. Comm'r of Social Security Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222-23 (9th Cir. 2009). The ALJ found that plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations. The claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The claimant can have no changes in the work setting. The claimant can perform work involving only superficial decision making and not requiring high production rate such as assembly line work.[11]

         The ALJ found plaintiff's symptom statements less than credible because they were inconsistent with the objective medical evidence, because they were inconsistent with her daily activities, and because she received unemployment benefits in the third and fourth quarters of 2016.[12]

         The ALJ considered the lay testimony of plaintiff's daughter.[13] The ALJ gave Dr. Winn's opinion[14] some weight but gave more weight[15] to Dr. Buechner's opinion.[16]

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was “capable of performing past relevant work as a 4-1-1 operator and stocker.”[17]

         The ALJ made an alternative step five finding that “there are other jobs existing in the national economy that [plaintiff] is also able to perform[, ]”[18] including working as a parking lot attendant or a car wash attendant.[19]

         Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 13, 2016, through the date of this decision. . . .”[20]

         Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court has the “power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner. . . .” The court “properly affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits if it is supported by substantial evidence and based on the application of correct legal standards.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). “Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). “‘To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, [the court] review[s] the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, the court must uphold the Commissioner's decision. Id. But, the Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed “‘simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step four. “At step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ . . . determines whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work” based on the RFC that the ALJ has assessed. Johnson v. Colvin, 31 F.Supp.3d 1262, 1272 (E.D. Wash. 2014). The ALJ found that plaintiff was

limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The claimant can have no changes in the work setting. The claimant can perform work involving only superficial decision making and not requiring high ...

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