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Stempke v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

April 16, 2015

KEITH J. STEMPKE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN JOHNSTON, Magistrate Judge.


Keith Stempke seeks disability benefits under the Social Security Act. The Social Security Administration determined he is capable of performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, despite severe impairments, and therefore is not entitled to benefits. That determination is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error. The case should be remanded to the Commissioner with instructions to establish the onset date of Mr. Stempke's disability and to award benefits retroactive to the onset date.


Jurisdiction vests with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The case is assigned to United States District Judge Brian Morris and referred to the undersigned to submit findings and recommendations on dispositive motions. Doc. 8. Venue in the Great Falls Division of the District of Montana is proper because Mr. Stempke resides in Cascade County, Montana. Doc. 1 at 1-2; 42 U.S.C. 405(g); Local Rule 1.2(c)(2).


Mr. Stempke applied for disability benefits in October 2010, alleging that he had been disabled since January 2008. Tr. 159-76. The Social Security Administration denied his claim. Tr. 132. Upon reconsideration, the Social Security Administration affirmed denial of the claim. Tr. 138.

Mr. Stempke requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 140. That hearing was conducted in September 2012, and Mr. Stempke was present with counsel. Tr. 59-107. In her October 2012 decision, the ALJ found Mr. Stempke did not qualify for benefits. Tr. 13-23. Mr. Stempke requested the Social Security Administration Appeals Council review the decision. Tr. 7. The Council denied that request, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Tr. 1-3.

Mr. Stempke sought judicial review via this action. Doc. 1. Mr. Stempke has filed a motion for summary judgment. Doc. 11. The motion is fully briefed. Docs. 12-14.


A. Court's role

Review in this case is limited. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's decision only where the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or where the decision is based on legal error. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence has also been described as "more than a mere scintilla" but "less than a preponderance." Desrosiers v. Sec. of Health and Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988).

The District Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 530 (9th Cir. 1986). The Court may reject the findings not supported by the record, but it may not substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

B. Disability criteria

A claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act if the claimant demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the claimant has a "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 or impairments are of such severity that, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, the claimant is not only unable to perform previous work, but also cannot "engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Schneider v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 974 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing 42 U.S.C. §1382(a)(3)(A)-(B)).

To determine if a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step evaluation process. Corrao v. Shalala, 20 F.3d 943, 946 (9th Cir. 1994) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382C(a)(3)). If the Commissioner finds that a claimant is disabled or not disabled at any step in this process, the review process ends. Id. at 946. At step one, the claimant must show he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At step two, the claimant must demonstrate that he has a severe impairment. At step three, the Commissioner must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals the criteria of the Listing of Impairments. Step four provides that if the claimant does not have a listed impairment, the claimant must establish a prima facie case of disability by showing an inability to engage in past work because of the medical impairments. Id. If that case is made, at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the ...

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