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Churchman v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

November 11, 2013

MELINDA S. CHURCHMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES A. REDDEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Melinda Churchman ("Churchman") brings this action to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed and this matter is dismissed.

BACKGROUND

Born in 1978, Churchman was 28 years old on her alleged onset date of July 17, 2007. She is a high school graduate. Tr. 24. She has worked as a care giver. Tr. 192. In September 2009, Churchman filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability since July 17, 2007. Tr. 164. Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a June 2011 hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found her not disabled. Churchman's request for review was denied, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

ALJ's DECISION

The ALJ found Churchman had the medically determinable severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and obesity. Tr. 13.

The ALJ found that Churchman's impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Id.

The ALJ determined that Churchman retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work. Tr. 14.

The ALJ found Churchman was not disabled, was unable to perform her past relevant work as a care giver, but retained the ability to perform other work, including ticket seller, assembler of small products, and electronics assembler. Tr. 18.

The medical records accurately set out Churchman's medical history as it relates to her claim for benefits. The court has carefully reviewed the medical record, and the parties are familiar with it. Accordingly, the details of those medical records will be set out below only as they are relevant to the issues before the court.

DISCUSSION

Churchman contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) finding her not fully credible; (2) improperly weighing medical evidence; (3) failing to resolve ambiguous evidence; and (4) failing to credit lay testimony.

I. Credibility

The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir 1995). However, the ALJ's findings must be supported by specific, cogent reasons. Reddick v. Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir 1998). Unless there is affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the Commissioner's reason for rejecting the claimant's testimony must be "clear and convincing." Id. The ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints. Id. The evidence upon which the ALJ relies must be substantial. Reddick. 157 F.3d at 724. See also Holohan v. Massinari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1208 (9th Cir 2001). General findings (e.g., "record in general" indicates improvement) are an insufficient basis to support an adverse credibility determination. Reddick at 722. See also Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1208. The ALJ must make a credibility determination with findings sufficiently specific to permit the court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 958 (9th Cir 2002).

In deciding whether to accept a claimant's subjective symptom testimony, "an ALJ must perform two stages of analysis: the Cotton analysis and an analysis of the credibility of the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms." [Footnote omitted.] Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir 1996).

Under the Cotton test, a claimant who alleges disability based on subjective symptoms "must produce objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged...." Bunnell, 947 F.2d at 344 (quoting 42 U.S.C. ยง 423 (d)(5)(A) (1988)); Cotton, 799 F.2d at 1407-08. The Cotton test imposes only two requirements on the claimant: (1) she must produce objective medical evidence of an impairment or impairments; and (2) she must show that the ...

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