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Wagoner v. Colvin

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

January 31, 2017

MARK A. WAGONER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT

          John Johnston, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. SYNOPSIS

         Mark A. Wagoner (Mr. Wagoner) seeks Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) determined Mr. Wagoner has the residual functional capacity to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, despite severe impairments, and, therefore, is not disabled and not entitled to SSI benefits. The Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error. Therefore, Mr. Wagoner's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied, and judgment will be entered in favor of the Commissioner.

         II. JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties consented to the undersigned conducting all proceedings in this matter, including the entry of judgment. (Doc. 7) The Great Falls Division of the District of Montana is the proper venue because Mr. Wagoner resides in Valley County, Montana. (Doc. 2 at 2); 42 U.S.C. 405(g); Local Rule 1.2(c)(2).

         III. STATUS

         On June 16, 2014, an administrative law judge (ALJ) decided that Mr. Wagoner was not eligible for disability benefits under Titles XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 11 at 13-37) On July 14, 2014, Mr. Wagoner timely requested that the Social Security Administration review the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 9) The Appeals Council for the Social Security Administration denied Mr. Wagoner's request for review on October 30, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Id. at 1-4)

         Mr. Wagoner timely filed a complaint on December 30, 2015, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 2) Mr. Wagoner filed an opening brief on June 30, 2016, requesting that the Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and order the payment of benefits to him. (Doc. 18) The Commissioner filed a response brief on July 27, 2016, and Mr. Wagoner filed a reply brief on October 24, 2016. (Docs. 20 and 29) The motion is ripe for decision.

         IV. STANDARDS

         A. Court's role

         The Court's review 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. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). 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); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006). Substantial evidence has also been described as “more than a mere scintilla” but “less than a preponderance.” Desrosiers v. Sec. of Health and Hum. Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988).

         "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). This Court must uphold the Commissioner's findings "if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "[I]f evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, " the Court "must defer to the Commissioner's decision." Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 (citing Morgan v. Commissioner, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)). This Court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Widmark, 454 F.3d at 1070 (quoting Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1156).Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld. Thomas v. Barhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         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. Sheckler, 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)).

         The Social Security Administration regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953 (9th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof for steps one through four, and the Commissioner bears the burden of proof for step five. Id. at 954. The five steps of the inquiry are:

1. Is the claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. If not, proceed to step two. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).
2. Is the claimant's impairment severe? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the claimant is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).
3. Does the impairment “meet or equal” one of a list of specific impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 220, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, proceed to step four. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).
4. Is the claimant able to do any work that he or she has done in the past? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
5. Is the claimant able to do any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).

Id.

         V. BACKGROUND

         A. ALJ's determination

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wagoner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 10, 2012, the application date. (Doc. 11 at 15) At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Wagoner has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy, status-post two microdiscectomy procedures, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. (Id. at 15)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Wagoner did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or was medically equal to one of the listed impairments. (Id. at 18)

         Before considering step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wagoner had the following residual functional capacity: he can perform the light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.967(b) with the following limitations: he can walk for 15-30 minutes at one time; he can stand for up to two hours at one time; he can be on his feet somewhere between four to six hours total in an eight hour day; he can sit for 30 minutes to one hour at a time, and for at least six hours total in an eight hour day; he can lift up to 35 pounds on an occasional basis and 10 pounds or less on a frequent basis; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and vibration; he cannot climb ladders or scaffolding; he can perform other postural activities occasionally; he should not have a job requiring dealing with the public, and any involvement with the public should only be accidental, brief, and superficial; he can have minimal close interaction with six or fewer coworkers; he must work in an environment without close supervision; he is incapable of high, constant focus throughout an eight hour day. (Id. at 20)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wagoner has no past relevant work. (Id. at 36)

         At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Mr. Wagoner's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Wagoner could perform and, therefore, he has not been under a disability since December 20, 2012, the date he filed his application. (Id. at 36-37.)

         B. Mr. Wagoner's position

         Mr. Wagoner argues the Court should reverse the Commissioner's decision and order the Commissioner to pay him SSI benefits because:

1. The ALJ erred in not finding Mr. Wagoner disabled based upon Medical-Vocational Guidelines Rule 201.09.
2. The ALJ erred by not giving proper weight to his treating physician's opinion that his impairments preclude him from working.
3. The ALJ erred by not giving proper weight to his treating therapist's opinion that his mental impairments interfere with memory, concentration and moods required for work activity.
4. The ALJ erred by making an adverse credibility finding regarding his pain and symptom testimony because the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence for doing so.
5. The ALJ erred by using his activities of daily living to find his subjective complaints not credible because the record shows that his daily activities are very limited and far less than the ...

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