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Sawaguchi v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

April 28, 2017

JOHN CHARLES SAWAGUCHI, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL AND AFFIRMING THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S OCTOBER 31, 2014 DECISION

          Leslie E. Kobayashi United States District Judge.

         Before this Court is Plaintiff John Charles Sawaguchi's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint for Review of Social Security Disability Benefits Determinations (“Complaint”), filed on May 20, 2016, in which he appeals from the Administrative Law Judge Tamara Turner-Jones's (“ALJ”) October 31, 2014 Decision (“Appeal”). The ALJ issued the Decision after conducting a hearing on August 12, 2014. [Administrative Record (“AR”) at 11.[1] The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, for purposes of the Social Security Act (“SSA”), from March 24, 2010 through the date of the Decision. [Decision at 15.]

         On September 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Opening Brief.[2] [Dkt. no. 22.] Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), filed her Answering Brief on November 29, 2016, and Plaintiff filed his Reply Brief on December 15, 2016. [Dkt. nos. 24, 25.] This Court heard oral argument in this matter on January 23, 2017. On March 29, 2017, this Court issued an entering order ruling on the Appeal (“3/29/17 EO Ruling”). [Dkt. no. 31.] The instant Order supersedes the 3/29/17 EO Ruling. After careful consideration of the Appeal, the parties' briefs, the arguments of counsel, and the relevant legal authority, Plaintiff's Appeal is DENIED and the ALJ's Decision is AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual Background

         On October 26, 2007, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability beginning December 29, 2006. The claim was denied, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Administrative Law Judge Dean K. Franks (“2009 ALJ”) held a hearing on December 11, 2009 (“2009 Hearing”), and issued a Decision on December 23, 2009 (“2009 Decision”). [AR at 94.[3] The 2009 ALJ noted that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a union business representative/benefits clerk, recycler, furniture driver, forklift driver, and kitchen/interior designer. [2009 Decision at 9.]

         The 2009 ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was disabled, as defined by the SSA, from October 18, 2007 through March 31, 2009. However, the 2009 ALJ found that Plaintiff had the ability to return to work as of April 1, 2009 through the date of the 2009 Decision, as a result of an exercise program to increase his back and leg strength.[4] [Id. at 10.] Thus, the 2009 ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's disability ended on April 1, 2009. [Id. at 12.]

         On January 20, 2012, Plaintiff filed another Title II application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability beginning March 24, 2010. The claim was denied, initially and on reconsideration. On October 9, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. At the August 12, 2014 hearing (“2014 Hearing”), Plaintiff was represented by Frank Ury, Esq. David Dettmer, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), participated in the 2014 Hearing by telephone. [Decision at 1.]

         The ALJ concluded that, for purposes of the current application for benefits, res judicata applied to the previously adjudicated period. As to the period after the adjudicated period in the 2009 Decision, the ALJ declined to adopt the 2009 ALJ's analysis and concluded that the 2009 Decision was not entitled to res judicata effect. The ALJ concluded that the presumption of continuing disability had been rebutted by a showing of changed circumstances relating to the issue of disability. The new, material evidence included Plaintiff's testimony at the 2014 Hearing and medical records after the date of the 2009 Decision. [Id. at 1-2.]

         In the instant Appeal, Plaintiff agrees with the ALJ's findings in step one through four of the five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. [Opening Brief at 5.] Thus, the Court will only discuss the ALJ's findings as to those steps to the extent they are relevant to the issue in the Appeal.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 24, 2010. [Decision at 4.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following impairments that were considered severe: “post- concussion syndrome; obesity; chronic pain syndrome; plantar fasciitis; degenerative joint disease; cervical, thoracic, and lumbar strain/sprain; right knee arthritis; affective disorder; status post carpal tunnel release; and anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified.” [Id. (citation omitted).] At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Id. at 4-5.] At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity [(“RFC”)] to perform less than a full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). Specifically, the claimant can lift and/or carry up to 10 pounds; can stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday with customary breaks; can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with customary breaks; would need to alternate positions between sitting and standing at one hour intervals for one to five minutes at the workstation; can occasionally kneel, stoop, crawl, and crouch; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can frequently use the upper extremities for fine and gross manipulations as well as reaching in all directions; should avoid unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; [would] need to avoid concentrated exposure to bright, blinking lights or prolonged direct sunlight due to headaches or migraines; can sustain concentration and attention, persistence and pace in two hour blocks of time to complete a normal workday; due to a low tolerance for stress, the individual would need a work environment that does not involve fast paced production or assembly line work, such as that involving a conveyor belt; would be able to interact and respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers, but would need only occasional direct contact with the general public; she [sic] would be unable to do complex or detailed tasks, but would remain capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions.

[Id. at 6.] The ALJ also found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. [Id. at 13.]

         At step five, the ALJ noted that, Plaintiff was within the category of “a younger individual age 18-44” on the alleged onset date, but, as of the date of the Decision, he was within the category of “a younger individual age 45-49.” [Id.]

         Plaintiff “has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.” [Id.] The ALJ concluded that she did not have to address whether Plaintiff had transferrable job skills because, based on the Medical-Vocational Rules, Plaintiff was not disabled, regardless of whether or not he had transferrable job skills. [Id. at 13-14.] The ALJ found that, in light of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he “would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as:” office helper, hand packager, and order clerk. [Id. at 14.] The ALJ found that these jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy, even taking into account the partial erosion of the sedentary occupational base because Plaintiff has to be able to alternate between sitting and standing positions. [Id.] The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy” and that he was not disabled for purposes of the SSA. [Id. at 15.]

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's Decision. [AR at 7.] On March 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied his request for review, rendering the ALJ's Decision the Commissioner's final decision. [AR at 1-3.] The instant Appeal followed.

         The sole issue in the Appeal is whether the ALJ erred because she did not give sufficient weight to the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) decision that Plaintiff is unemployable because of his service-connected disabilities. Plaintiff points to the VA Rating Decision dated November 11, 2013 (“11/11/13 VA Decision”). [AR at 322-24 (11/11/13 VA Decision); AR at 325-28 (letter to Plaintiff transmitting and explaining effect of the VA decision).] The 11/11/13 VA Decision states that Plaintiff served in the Air Force from June 3, 1992 to August 21, 1992. [AR at 322.] It concludes that Plaintiff is entitled to individual unemployment - i.e. his unemployability rating is one hundred percent - effective May 31, 2013, because he “is unable to secure or follow a substantially gainful occupation as a result of service-connected disabilities.” [AR at 323, 326.] Specifically, the VA assigned the following ratings:

A 20 percent evaluation is assigned for degenerative joint disease, right ankle. An evaluation of 20 percent is assigned for marked limited motion of the ankle.
A 20 percent evaluation is assigned for degenerative joint disease, left ankle. An evaluation of 20 percent is assigned for marked limited motion of the ankle.
A 10 percent evaluation is assigned for degenerative joint disease, status post shin splints with stress reaction distal femurs, right knee. An evaluation of 10 percent is granted for malunion of the tibia and fibula with slight knee or ankle disability. A higher evaluation of 20 percent is not warranted in the absence of moderate knee or ankle disability.
A 10 percent evaluation is assigned for degenerative joint disease, left foot. An evaluation of 10 percent is assigned whenever foot injury results in moderate symptoms. A higher evaluation of 20 percent is not warranted ...

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