United States District Court, D. Oregon
BARBARA E. CANTRELL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL PAPAK, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Barbara E. Cantrell filed this action on June 22, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her application for supplemental security income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). I have considered all of the parities' briefs and all of the evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed.
DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK
To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected... to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
At the first step, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.
At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. 416.921(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impalements are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996), citing Bowen, 482. U.S. at 153-154. "An impairment or combination of impairments can be found not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual[']s ability to work." Id., quoting SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856 (1985).
If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).
If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and the fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis,  despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. 416.945(a); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996).
At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f). In the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof shifts, for the first time, to the Commissioner.
At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether a person with those characteristics and RFC could perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate the existence in significant numbers in the national economy of jobs capable of being performed by a person with the RFC assessed by the ALJ between the third and forth steps of the five-step process, the claimant is found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet that burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
A reviewing court must affirm an Administrative Law Judge's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supplied by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007), citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).
The court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id., quoting Reddick v. Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See id. citing Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Moreover, the court may not rely upon its own independent findings of fact in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence of record. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003), citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of] more than one rational interpretation." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), citing Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984).
PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
Cantrell received treatment from Karen Potampa, R.N., F.N.P., at the Mountain View Professional Center in connection with virtually all of her medical needs during the period from 2002 through 2011. During that period, Potampa recorded approximately 30 in-person and telephonic consultations with Cantrell.
Effective June 29, 2009, Cantrell protectively filed concurrent applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and social security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2001. (Tr. 162-175). On July 21, 2009, Cantrell's daughter, Michelle Bushard, provided written testimony as to the manner in which Cantrell's "illnesses, injuries, or conditions limit her activities." (Tr. 205-212).
On October 15, 2009, Cantrell was referred to Administration consultative examiner Nancy Maloney, M.D., for a physical disability examination. (Tr. 347-351). Dr. Maloney performed a physical examination and reviewed Cantrell's past medical records. (Tr. 347-349). Based on her review and examination, Dr. Maloney opined that Cantrell was capable of occasionally lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds, frequently lifting and/or carrying ten pounds, standing and/or walking at least two hours in an eight-hour workday, sitting for a total of less than about six hours in an eight-hour workday but must periodically alternate sitting and standing to relieve pain or discomfort, and unlimited pushing and/or pulling. (Tr. 350). Dr. Maloney further opined that Cantrell was capable of occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, but was to never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. 350). Dr. Maloney additionally opined that Cantrell was capable of frequently reaching in all directions (including overhead), handling (gross manipulation), fingering (fine manipulation), and feeling (skin receptors), but should avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibration, and hazards (machinery, heights, etc.). (Tr. 351). Finally, Dr. Maloney opined that Cantrell should avoid occasional exposure to noise and fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation, but should not be restricted from wetness or humidity. (Tr. 351). Dr. Maloney ultimately diagnosed Cantrell with fibromyalgia, diabetes mellitus, and hypothyroidism. (Tr. 351).
On December 2, 2009, Administration consultant physician Linda Jensen, M.D., conducted a review of Cantrell's medical records and completed an assessment of her physical residual functional capacity (an "RFCA"), considering the period from January 1, 2003 to December 2, 2009. (Tr. 352-359). Dr. Jensen opined that Cantrell could occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds, frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds, stand and/or walk for a total of at least two hours in an eight-hour workday, sit for a total of less than about six hours in an eight-hour day, and was unlimited in her ability to push and/or pull. (Tr. 353). Dr. Jensen further opined that Cantrell was capable of occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and frequently climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. (Tr. 354). Dr. Jensen further opined that Cantrell had no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations. Finally, Dr. Jensen opined that, while Cantrell's exposure to extreme cold and heat, wetness, humidity, noise, and fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation did not need to be limited, she should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards (machinery, heights, etc.) due to possible adverse effects of her medications. (Tr. 356). Based on her review of Cantrell's records, including Dr. Maloney's report, Dr. Jensen diagnosed Cantrell with the medically determinable impairments of diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia, and hypothyroidism, and found it "reasonable to assess [Cantrell] as being able to perform light RFC from [January 1, 2003] to current." (Tr. 359).
On December 4, 2009, the Administration denied Cantrell's SSI and DIB applications, finding her not disabled for purposes of the Act.
On January 13, 2010, Cantrell met with Potampa to follow up on lab work. In the progress note from that appointment, Potampa wrote that Cantrell had asked her to "provide her with a letter stating that she has been diagnosed with neuropathy." (Tr. 367). Potampa opined in that connection that Cantrell was "building a file... for social security disability. She has had one in denial, but states that she is continuing to build a file.'" (Tr. 367).
On February 17, 2010, Cantrell filed a request for reconsideration of the Administration's adverse decision. (Tr. 98-99). On July 12, 2010, Disability Determination Services ("DDS") referred Cantrell to psychological consultative examiner William Trueblood, Ph.D., for psychodiagnostic examination. (Tr. 402-410). Dr. Trueblood interviewed Cantrell, perfumed a mental status examination, and reviewed her prior medical records. Dr. Trueblood opined that "[p]sychodiagnostic examination of Barbara Cantrell yields a history that reflects long-term depression, which is consistent with diagnosis of Dysthymia, " and assessed Cantrell a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 55. (Tr. 407, 409).
On July 22, 2010, Administration psychological consultant Sandra Lundblad, Psy.D., relied upon a Psychiatric Review Technique ("PRT") to assess Cantrell's mental residual functional capacity during the period from June 22, 2009 to July 20, 2010. (Tr. 411-424); Dr. Lundblad classified Cantrell's mental health symptoms as falling under Administration listings 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and 12.06 (Anxiety-Related Disorders). (Tr. 411). Dr. Lundblad characterized Cantrell's impairments as dysthymia under Affective Disorders, and Anxiety Disorder, NOS under Anxiety-Related Disorders (Tr. 414, 416), but determined that her dysthymia and anxiety were "Not Severe." (Tr. 411). Under a degree of limitation scale consisting of none, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme (with only the degrees marked and extreme satisfying the functional criterion), Dr. Lundblad found that, in connection with her Affective Disorder or Anxiety-Related Disorder, Cantrell had mild "restriction of activities of daily living, " mild "difficulties in maintaining social functioning, " mild "difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, " and no "episodes of decompensation of an extended duration." (Tr. 421). Dr. Lundblad lastly determined that the evidence did not establish the presence of the "C" criteria in connection with either Affective Disorders or Anxiety-Related Disorders. (Tr. 422).
On July 26, 2010, Administration medical consultant Neal Berner, M.D., re-assessed Cantrell's physical residual functional capacity. After reviewing Cantrell's medical records and finding "no new or material evidence to support a change in determination, " Dr. Berner affirmed Dr. Jensen's prior conclusion that Cantrell was capable of performing a light RFC. (Tr. 425). On July 29, 2010, upon reconsideration, the Administration again denied Cantrell's SSI and DIB applications, finding her not disabled for purposes of the Act. (Tr. 98-99).
On August 11, 2011, Cantrell met again with Potampa to review some lab work. (Tr. 472-474). In her progress note from that appointment, Potampa wrote that Cantrell "inquir[ed] about receiving a note of medical necessity for a cane that she uses on an a[s] needed basis [because] her attorney has told her that a medical order for a cane that she is using would add credibility to her case." (Tr. 472).
In or around October 2010, Cantrell went on a one-month camping and hunting trip with her family. (Tr. 83-84).
On March 17, 2011, Cantrell met with Mark Belza, M.D., at The Center for Orthopedics and Neurosurgery (the "Center"). (Tr. 432-435). Cantrell complained of low back pain and left leg pain, and Dr. Belza found "no focal tenderness" in Cantrell's spine. (Tr. 434).
On September 29, 2011, Cantrell amended her alleged disability onset date from January 1, 2001 to June 29, 2009, and withdrew her DIB claim. (Tr. 155). On November 9, 2011, a hearing in connection with Cantrell's SSI application was held before an Administrative Law Judge, at which Cantrell's attorney and a vocational expect attended. (Tr. 36-95). During the hearing, Cantrell conformed the amendment of her alleged disability onset date and the withdrawal of her DIB claim. On December 28, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Cantrell not disabled for purposes of her SSI application. (Tr. 21-30). The Appeals Council denied Cantrell's request for review of the ALJ's decision on April 2, 2013. In consequence, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. 404.981, 416.1481. This action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision followed.
SUMMARY OF ALJ FINDINGS
The ALJ issued a decision finding Cantrell not disabled for purposes of her application for benefits on December 28, 2011. (Tr. 21-30). At the first step of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Cantrell had not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time following her amended alleged onset date of June 29, 2009. (Tr. 23). He therefore proceeded to the second step of the analysis.
At the second step, the ALJ found that Cantrell's fibromyalgia, diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease of the lower spine, and bilateral hand and finger pain were "severe impairments" for purposes of the Act. (Tr. 24). In light of that ...