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Cook v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

November 18, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.



         Pending is Petitioner Shawn Duane Cook's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding him not disabled and denying his claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. See Pet. for Review (Dkt. 1). This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Having carefully considered the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order.


         On August 21, 2015, Petitioner Shawn Duane Cook (“Petitioner”) protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits and for Title XVI supplemental security income. (AR 15.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning May 7, 2015. (Id.) His claims were denied initially on October 2, 2015 and then again on reconsideration on December 3, 2015. (Id.) On December 23, 2015, Petitioner timely filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner testified at a hearing held on February 1, 2017 in Spokane, Washington, as did impartial medical expert Robert Thompson, M.D., and impartial vocational expert Sharon Welter. (Id.) The hearing was continued in order to obtain a consultative physical examination, after which a supplemental hearing was held September 7, 2017, in Spokane, Washington. (Id.) Petitioner and impartial vocational expert Anne Jones appeared and testified at the supplemental hearing. (Id.)

         On February 22, 2018, ALJ Lori L. Freund issued a decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the period from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 27.) Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on March 19, 2018. (AR 278). On November 28, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Having exhausted administrative remedies, Petitioner filed this case. He contends that “[t]he conclusions and findings of fact of the [Respondent] are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to law and regulation.” Pet. for Review 1 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner argues that the ALJ erred by classifying Petitioner's RFC as “light” rather than “sedentary” and that the ALJ erred by applying the “grid rules” with the “light” exertional level. See generally Pet'r's Mem. (Dkt. 13). Petitioner asks that the case be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits. Id. at 9.


         To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664 (9th Cir. 2017). Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In other words, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual decisions, they must be upheld, even when there is conflicting evidence. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).

         “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); Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance (Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         With respect to questions of fact, the Court is to review the record as a whole to decide whether it contains evidence that would allow a person of a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. In such cases, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).

         The decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Zavalin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 842, 845 (9th Cir. 2015); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Considerable weight is given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). However, this Court “will not rubber-stamp an administrative decision that is inconsistent with the statutory mandate or that frustrates the congressional purpose underlying the statute.” Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).


         A. Sequential Process

         In evaluating the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in determining whether a person is disabled in general (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is work activity that is both substantial and gainful. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a). “Gainful work activity” is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied regardless of his medical condition, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the ...

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