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Jones v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 27, 2014

JESIE R. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jesie R. Jones brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for supplemental security income payments (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The issues before this Court are (1) whether the ALJ properly considered witness and physician testimony and (2) whether the ALJ erred in formulating and applying plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) under step four and five of the sequential evaluation. Because the ALJ properly considered the relevant testimony and properly formed and applied plaintiff's RFC, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Jones applied for SSI on October 15, 2008, alleging disability beginning October 15, 2008. Tr. 11, 101, 111. This claim was denied initially on March 9, 2009, and upon reconsideration on August 17, 2009. Tr. 11, 61, 69. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeared before the Honorable Marilyn S. Mauer on April 26, 2011. Tr. 11, 25-58, 72. ALJ Mauer denied plaintiff's claims by written decision dated July 11, 2011. Tr. 11-20. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied on November 19, 2012, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1-3, 7. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

Plaintiff, born in 1989, was 19 years old when he filed his application for SSI, tr. 101, and 22 years old at the time of his hearing, tr. 30. Plaintiff completed his sophomore year of high school and has earned 13.5 credits toward obtaining his General Educational Development (GED). Tr. 30-31, 205. Plaintiff alleges disability due to "borderline intellectual functioning, a personality disorder with avoidant and dependent features, and amblyopia in the right eye with type III Duane's retraction syndrome and hypertropia." Pl.'s Br. 1, ECF No. 13; see also tr. 111 (alleging "Learning disabilities, right eye problems.").

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

DISCUSSION

The Social Security Administration utilizes a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

Plaintiff contends that: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected plaintiff's testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected lay witness testimony; (3) the ALJ improperly rejected examining doctor opinion; and (4) the ALJ's improperly excluded functional limitations in plaintiff's RFC assessment.

I. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected his testimony, including testimony related to his vision impairment and concentration problems. Pl.'s Br. 9-10, ECF No. 13. In response, defendant argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility findings. Def.'s Br. 5-8, ECF No. 17.

An ALJ must consider a claimant's symptom testimony, including statements regarding pain and workplace limitations. See 20 CFR § 404.1529, 416.929. "In deciding whether to accept [this 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 [his] symptoms." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996). If a claimant meets the Cotton analysis[1] and there is no evidence of malingering, "the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of [his] symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so." Id. (citing Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993)). This Court "may not engage in second-guessing, " Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted), and "must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, " Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted).

First, as to plaintiff's eye impairment, Duane's syndrome, he testified at his administrative hearing that he was unable to "see out of [his] right eye." Tr. 36. Plaintiff subsequently modified this statement, by indicating that he had previously reported having "some vision" in his right eye. Tr. 41. However, plaintiff noted that his attempts to use the eye resulted in headaches "twice a week." Id. Plaintiff successfully treated most of his headaches with Tylenol or Ibuprofen, ...


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