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Abrahamson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 11, 2014

Heidi Abrahamson, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

G. MURRAY SNOW, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Heidi Abrahamson, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 12.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms that decision.

BACKGROUND

Abrahamson applied for disability insurance benefits over sixteen years ago on November 12, 1997. (R. at 98.) She returns to this Court for a third time following three rounds of denial at the Social Security Administration ("SSA") and two reversals and remands from this Court. (R. at 709-10.) The bases for the SSA's denials and this Court's reversals in the previous two iterations of this case provide essential background information. In those first two iterations, Abrahamson alleged an ongoing claim of disability with an onset date of September 1, 1995. (Doc. 15 1:24-2:2.)

The SSA approved Abrahamson's claim for supplemental security income but denied her claim for disability insurance benefits upon initial and reconsideration review. (R. at 632.) An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and heard testimony from: Abrahamson; Ryan Abrahamson, her husband; Edward Jasiniski, Ph.D., a medical expert; and Louise Chastain, her neighbor. (R. at 27-68.) In evaluating whether Abrahamson was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (R. at 20-26.) The ALJ denied the claim at the first step, finding that Abrahamson continued to participate in substantial gainful activity through the time that her insured status expired. ( Id. ) Abrahamson's insured status ended on June 30, 1997.[2] ( Id. )

The ALJ found that Abrahamson worked as an apartment manager and received free rent, valued at $700, along with bonuses of $100 per apartment rented. ( Id. ) This amount exceeded the $500 per month earnings threshold in place at the time at which employment was presumed to be substantial gainful activity. ( Id. ) The ALJ considered but rejected Abrahamson's argument that her employment was performed under special conditions. ( Id. ) The appeals counsel denied review, and Abrahamson appealed to this Court. (R. at 8-10.)

This Court reversed and remanded. Abrahamson v. Barnhart, No. CV 03-2199-PHX-EHC, Doc. 58 (D. Ariz. Sept. 29, 2006). It held that the ALJ erred by accepting the presumption of substantial gainful activity based on the income level without determining whether that presumption was rebutted by the special conditions under which Abrahamson performed her work. Id. at 4-5. Specifically, the Court held that "[t]he record reflects that Plaintiff worked under special conditions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1573(c). The ALJ failed to address this proposition. The Court will remand this matter to the Commissioner to consider the testimony of Graff, Chastain and others with respect to special circumstances under which Plaintiff worked." Id. at 5.

Upon remand, a new ALJ held another hearing on March 13, 2007 at which Abrahamson and vocational expert George Bluth, Ph.D., testified. (R. at 666-96.) That ALJ again denied the claim at the first step because he found that Abrahamson continued to participate in substantial gainful activity until after her insured status expired. (R. at 632-37.) That ALJ again determined that the work Abrahamson performed was not done under special conditions. ( Id. ) The appeals counsel affirmed and Abrahamson returned to this Court.

This Court again reversed and remanded, holding that the ALJ violated the "law of the case" by conducting a "renewed special conditions' analysis." Abrahamson v. Astrue, CV-07-1650-PHX-JAT, 2009 WL 806622, at *2 (D. Ariz. Mar. 26, 2009). This Court held that because it had already determined that Abrahamson worked under special conditions, the ALJ could not reach the opposite conclusion. Id. The Court noted that it had remanded on the previous occasion and was doing so again because "there are outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made." Id. Quoting from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1573(c), this Court noted that "work done under special conditions may show that you have the necessary skills and ability to work at the substantial gainful activity level." Id. The Court concluded that the ALJ "failed to consider the effect of the special conditions on whether Plaintiff has the necessary skills and ability to work at the substantial gainful activity level." Id. at *3.

The case returned again to the SSA where a third ALJ held a hearing in September 2011. (R. at 853-93.) Abrahamson and vocational expert John J. Komar, Ph.D. testified at the hearing. ( Id. ) During this hearing, Abrahamson changed her alleged onset date of disability from September 1, 1995 to April 23, 1997. ( Id. ) The new later onset date is just over two months before her insured status expired on June 30, 1997. Abrahamson also changed her claim to a closed period ending on December 31, 2006. ( Id. ) During the hearing there were disagreements between Abrahamson's attorney and the ALJ. ( Id. ) The ALJ elicited testimony from Abrahamson and the vocational expert, but Abrahamson's attorney challenged the ALJ on several grounds. ( Id. ) At one point the attorney suggested that the ALJ should recuse himself because the attorney felt that the ALJ was not following this Court's orders. ( Id. at 886-87.)

The third ALJ again found that Abrahamson's job as an apartment manager constituted substantial gainful activity under the regulations. (R. at 706-24.) The ALJ emphasized that the presumptive threshold of $500 per month had been exceeded but also considered the testimony and evidence that this Court previously held should be considered "special conditions" under the regulations. ( Id. ) The ALJ's made a determination at the first step as the other two ALJ's decisions had.[3]

In the alternative, the ALJ went on to hold that even if the work were not substantial gainful activity, a denial of benefits was still appropriate. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Abrahamson had several severe impairments under step two. (R. at 715.) Under step three, the ALJ held that none of those impairments individually or in combination equaled a listed impairment. (R. at 715-16.) The ALJ then determined that Abrahamson had a residual functional capacity ("RFC")[4] that allowed for light work with some restrictions. (R. at 716-22.) Finally, the ALJ determined that with the RFC, Abrahamson was capable of performing her past relevant work as an apartment manager and display manager. (R. at 722-23.)

Abrahamson now appeals the latest ALJ's determination ...


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