United States District Court, D. Oregon
ROCHELLE E. ROYCE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
ANN AIKEN, District Judge.
This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.
On September 25, 2009, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits alleging an onset disability date of November 15, 2005. The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff and her mother testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Shortly thereafter, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled as of the alleged onset date. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Counsel, which denied the request for review. Plaintiff then sought judicial review from this Court to review the Commissioner's final decision.
Plaintiff was twenty years old as of the disability onset date and twenty-six years old as of the date of the ALJ's written decision. Plaintiff completed her GED and has had some higher education, which consists of a completed Associates of Arts and Letters and a nearly completed Associates of Science and Business degree. Plaintiff has one child, age eight at the time of the hearing, for whom she is the primary caretaker. At least one day a week, Plaintiff's mother also cares for the child. Plaintiff claims disability from a combination of mental impairments including mental bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and auditory and visual hallucinations. Plaintiff also claims physical impairments such as gastroesophical reflux disease and knee problems.
Standard of Review
The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F, 2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the 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. § 4230)(1)(A).
Plaintiff identified four errors by the ALJ 1) failing to find Plaintiff's hallucinations as a severe impairment; 2) failing to give germane reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's mother's statement; 3) improperly discounting Plaintiffs credibility; and 4) failing to properly evaluate Dr. Dean's medical opinion. Plaintiff contends that her testimony and Dr. Dean's opinion should be credited as true, thus requiring a remand for payment of benefits. The Commissioner concedes that the ALJ's decision as to Plaintiff's hallucinations and her mother's statement are not supported by substantial evidence and requires remand. The Commissioner also concedes that some of the reasons provided to question Plaintiff's credibility and to dismiss Dr. Dean's opinion are erroneous. However, the Commissioner argues that, overall, the ALJ's decision as to these issues is supported by legally sufficient reasons and that this Court should remand for further administrative proceedings due to unresolved issues that preclude a finding of disability.
I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Plaintiffs Credibility
Once a claimant produces medical evidence of an impairment, the Commissioner may discredit the claimant's testimony as to the severity of symptoms only with clear and convincing reasons. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). In making these determinations the ALJ is allowed to use ordinary techniques used in the evaluation of credibility. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). For example, "[i]f a claimant is able to spend a substantial part of [her] day engaged in pursuits involving the performance of physical functions that are transferable to a work setting, a specific finding as to this fact may be sufficient to discredit a claimant's allegations." Morgan v. Comm'r. of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999). The ALJ may also consider inconsistent or unexplained claimant testimony, failure to follow a course of treatment or recommendations of doctors, evidence of self-limiting behaviors, and a claimant's work history. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002); see Molina, 674 F.3d at 1112.
The ALJ provided several reasons for his adverse finding of Plaintiff's credibility. Among these are: 1) inconsistencies between her allegations and her hearing testimony; 2) the course of treatment provided and her use of such treatment; and 3) the lack of evidence in the record to support the functional limitations claimed. The record supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff made several statements at the hearing that are inconsistent with her allegations of disability. For example, Plaintiff testified that while she searches for employment, she has a hard time because she reaches a "dead-end" in finding something that works with her transportation issues. Tr. 45. She further testified that she recently applied for jobs close to her home, but that these places were not hiring. Id. Finally, she testified that while she was limited in what she could do, she left her last job because she "wanted to go to college" and that she "always just [got] too stressed out when [she] kept going through job after job so "[she] just decided [she] would go to school and do something different." Tr. 46. Plaintiff later testified that she did not want these jobs and believed she could not perform the jobs she applied for because she needed to deal with her issues functioning around people, taking care of her child more, and that she was not ready for a job. Tr. 56.
Other statements relating to her schooling were also inconsistent. On one occasion Plaintiff testified that she "just [did] school at home... that's all I ever did." Tr. 48. However, later Plaintiff stated that she always sat "front and center" in her classes and her testimony clearly indicated she travelled to school to attend class. Tr. 57. On another occasion, Plaintiff testified that she dropped out of George Fox University because of automobile reliability issues. Tr. 58. However, later Plaintiff stated that even with a reliable car she may not wish to return because of her child's daycare needs and because she would like to go with her mother and keep with her mother's schedule. Tr. 59. Finally, ...