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Walters v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

August 8, 2014

JULIE A. WALTERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT E. JONES, District Judge.

Plaintiff Julie Walters appeals the Commissioner's decision denying her 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

Walters applied for disability insurance benefits alleging she became disabled in June 1999, due to chronic pain, myofascial pain syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Admin. R. 79. For reasons that do not matter in this appeal, the case has a long procedural history, including four administrative hearings, each followed by a determination that Walters was not disabled. The fourth determination became the Commissioner's final decision and is now before me in this appeal.

The ALJ correctly determined that the relevant time for Walters's claim ended on March 31, 2008, when her insured status under the Social Security Act expired. To prevail on her claim, Walters must show that she was disabled on or before that date. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A). See Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1998).

The ALJ found that during the relevant time, Walters's ability to perform basic work activities was limited by chronic pain, epicondylitis, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, depression, anxiety, and dependence on narcotic pain medications. The ALJ found that, despite these impairments, Walters retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform unskilled work involving only routine tasks, light exertion, limited postural and climbing activities, and no more than superficial interaction with the general public. The vocational expert ("VE") testified that a person having Walters's RFC could perform the activities required in light, unskilled occupations such as small products assembler, parking lot attendant, and office assistant, and that those occupations represented hundreds of thousands of jobs in the national economy. The ALJ therefore concluded that Walters was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time.

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. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Under this standard, the court must consider the record as a whole, and uphold the Commissioner's factual findings that are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence even if another interpretation is also rational. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).

DISCUSSION

I. Claims of Error

Walters contends the ALJ improperly discounted her credibility, gave insufficient weight to the medical opinions of Paul Chung, M.D., Karyn Ofa, D.O., and William Melcher, M.D., and rejected a vocational evaluation report from a rehabilitation counselor. Walters argues that these errors led the ALJ to improperly conclude that she did not satisfy the criteria for presumptive disability under the regulatory Listing of Impainnents and to assess her RFC in a manner that did not accurately reflect all of her actual limitations. Pl.'s Br. 21-22.

II. Credibility Determination

The ALJ found that Walters's impairments could reasonably be expected to produce some of the symptoms she alleged but that she lacked credibility regarding the extent to which her symptoms limited her ability to function. Admin. R. 43. The ALJ accepted that Walters experienced chronic pain and acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, epicondylitis, degenerative changes in the right knee joint, depression, anxiety, and dependence on narcotic medications. Admin. R. 29. He also believed these impairments imposed significant limitations on Walters's ability to work, as reflected in the RFC assessment. Admin. R. 33.

The ALJ found that Walters was not credible in her claims of functional limitations beyond those in the RFC assessment, including those summarized here. Admin. R. 43. Walters's claimed profound physical limitations that left her essentially bedridden. Admin. R. 325, 328, 1417. She often described the intensity of her chronic pain as unbearable or 10/10 on the pain scale, which commonly denotes pain that is beyond excruciating. Admin. R. 531, 547, 572, 581. She said her pain caused daily agony and made any activity a struggle. Admin. R. 325, 338. She told a consultant her pain was so severe that she could not sit for one minute, stand for 20 minutes, or walk 100 feet. Admin. R. 372. She said constant pain left her barely able to walk and made sitting for any length of time difficult. Admin. R. 1319, 1418. Walters said she could barely lift a cup of coffee. Admin. R. 338. She alleged she could not retain information because she suffered from "fibro fog." Admin. R. 338. She said she had difficulty remembering to take her medications. Admin. R. 774. At other times, Walters said she could sit or stand for no more than 30 minutes and lift no more than a gallon of milk. Admin. R. 34.

An adverse credibility determination must include specific findings supported by substantial evidence and clear and convincing reasons. Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Adm in., 533 F.3d 1155, 1160 (9th Cir. 2008); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281-82 (9th Cir. 1996). The findings must be sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony. Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1039.

The ALJ found Walters's subjective statements about her limitations were not credible in light of the objective and clinical medical findings, evidence that she engaged in activities that were inconsistent with her claimed limitations, drug seeking behavior that suggested her subjective statements about pain were unduly motivated by her dependence on narcotics, and her repeated requests for specific treatment procedures based on her independent view of her medical condition and failure to follow more appropriate therapies recommended by her physicians. Admin. R. 34-35, 39-43.

The ALJ found that the medical evidence in the record suggested only moderate limitations, contrary to the profound physical limitations Walters alleged. This conclusion is supplied by the treatment records of physicians in various specialties which revealed only normal, benign, and mild diagnostic findings with very little suggestion of functional limitation. The ALJ could reasonably expect that the profound functional limitations Walters alleged would be revealed in the examinations and clinical observations of her physicians. As the following summary shows, such findings cannot be found in the medical records.

At the alleged onset of disability, Walters's primary complaint was chronic neck pain for which she had been receiving increasing amounts of short acting narcotic pain medication for a couple of years. Admin. R. 581. Physical examinations were essentially normal, with free and easy range of motion. Diagnostic imaging and nerve conduction studies were negative for findings that would account for her neck symptoms. Her physicians recommended conservative treatment with ...


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