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Raegen v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 13, 2014

MARYROSE RAEGEN O/B/O THERESA SYZONENKO (DECEASED), Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT E. JONES, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff MaryRose Raegen, brought this appeal on behalf of her deceased sister, Theresa Syzonenko. The Commissioner denied in part Syzonenko's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). I AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

Syzonenko alleged disability beginning December 1, 2004 due to bipolar disorder. Admin. R. 11, 96, 118. The ALJ applied the sequential disability determination process described in 20 C.F.R. section 404.1520. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). He found that Syzonenko's ability to work was adversely affected by bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and diabetes. Admin. R. 13. He found that, despite her impairments, Syzonenko retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks. Admin. R. 14. The ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert ("VE") who said that numerous jobs exist in the national economy that a person with Syzonenko's RFC could perform. Admin. R. 18, 65-66. The ALJ concluded that Syzonenko was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Admin. R. 18-19.

Syzonenko appealed that decision to the district court, but died from cancer unrelated to her allegations of disability while the appeal was pending. Admin. R. 498. In that appeal, Judge Brown reversed and remanded the decision for further administrative proceedings in which the ALJ was to reevaluate certain evidence, including the lay witness statement of Rick Edmunds, a manager of the Safeway grocery store where Syzonenko worked as a courtesy clerk. Admin. R. 580, 582, 585.

On remand, the ALJ received additional evidence, conducted a second administrative hearing, and issued a new decision. The ALJ found that Syzonenko's ability to work was adversely affected by bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, diabetes, and, beginning in 2008, anemia. Admin. R. 501. The ALJ found no basis to alter his previous RFC determination with respect to the period before November 1, 2008. He found that beginning on that date, Syzonenko's fatigue became so profound as that she was unable to work more than four hours per day. Admin. R. 508. For the period before November 2008, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony from the first hearing and concluded that Syzonenko was not disabled at that time. Admin. R. 509-10. He found that Syzonenko became disabled on November 1, 2008, and remained disabled until her death. Admin. R. 511.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S. C.§ 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Under this standard, the Commissioner's factual findings must be upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record even if evidence exists to support another rational interpretation. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).

DISCUSSION

I. Claims of Error

The relevant period for Raegen's appeal runs from the alleged onset of disability in December 2004 until the onset of disability determined in the ALJ's decision after remand, November 1, 2008. Raegen contends that, with respect to the relevant period, the ALJ failed to assess Syzonenko's RFC accurately because he improperly discounted Raegen's statements and those of Rick Edmunds regarding the nature of Syzonenko's employment at the grocery store. Raegen also contends the ALJ failed to address the lay witness statement of Barbara Anctil regarding Syzonenko's functional limitations.

II. Lay Witness Statements

Raegen contends the ALJ improperly rejected the lay witness statements without giving adequate reasons. An ALJ must consider the testimony of a lay witness, but may discount it for reasons germane to the witness. Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 694 (9th Cir. 2009). The ALJ's reasons must be supported by substantial evidence, but may appear anywhere in the decision and need not be tied directly to the evaluation of the lay witness statements. Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 512 (9th Cir. 2001). If the ALJ gives adequate reasons for rejecting the testimony of one witness, those reasons are sufficient to reject the similar statements of a different lay witness, even if the ALJ does not discuss each witness's statements on an individualized basis. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1114 (9th Cir. 2012).

Rick Edmunds managed the grocery store where Syzonenko worked beginning in 2005. In July 2008, Edmunds submitted a witness statement indicating that Syzonenko worked as a courtesy clerk with duties limited to bagging groceries and collecting shopping carts from the parking lot. He said she had been hired under a program that Safeway maintains for challenged individuals. He believed Syzonenko had a mental condition that made her hear things in her head and left her unable to translate thoughts into actions. He said she had a slow affect and no sense of urgency. ...


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