United States District Court, D. Oregon
SUZANNE F. LYNNES, 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 (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
On December 30, 2008, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for DIB. On November 29, 2010, Plaintiff also protectively filed a Title XVI application for SSI. Both filings alleged an onset disability date of November 18, 2008. The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. After requesting hearing, Plaintiff testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and a vocational expert (VE). 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 Council, which denied the request for review. Plaintiff then sought judicial review from this Court to review the Commissioner's final decision.
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. § 423 (d) (1) (A).
Plaintiff identifies three errors by the ALJ: 1) improperly discounting Plaintiff's testimony; 2) improperly discrediting the medical opinions of Dr. Falk, Dr. Lechnyr, and Dr. Brewster; and 3) not finding Plaintiff's fibromyalgia and pain disorder to be severe impairments at step two of the evaluation process. Plaintiff contends that these errors require a remand for payment of benefits. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by legally sufficient reasons and that this Court should affirm the Commissioner's decision.
I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Plaintiff's Credibility
Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ improperly evaluated her testimony. 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.
Plaintiff alleges that she has severe limitations such as her legs going numb, crying spells that last for hours at times, problems focusing, and physical limitations stemming from her shoulder, knee and foot. Tr. 33, 37, 38, 40. The ALJ provided several reasons for his adverse credibility finding. Among these are: 1) inconsistencies between her alleged functional limitations and her daily activities; 2) the level of specificity Plaintiff provided about her limitations; and 3) a lack of medical evidence in the record to support the functional limitations claimed. Tr. 69-71. I find that the ALJ provided legally sufficient reasons for his evaluation of the Plaintiff.
The record supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff made several inconsistent statements regarding her limitations at varying points in the disability process, and that these limitations are inconsistent with her daily activities. For example, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff stated she was able to perform household chores such as laundry, preparing meals, feeding animals, and babysitting her step children. Tr. 70, 232. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff doesn't require rest or laying in bed and, in fact, sits the majority of the day without changing positions. Tr. 70, 230-232. Additionally, the ALJ noted that while Plaintiff's impairments resulted in limitations, none of her burdens were unusual or required unusual accommodations or time-consuming treatment. See id. Finally, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had reported that she was able to drive herself to doctor appointments, participate in work-like activities, and apply for jobs (however, Plaintiff stated she could not perform these "sit jobs" due to her level of education). Tr. 32, 70, 227, 233, 583.
After her claim was denied, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff alleged far more severe limitations that were inconsistent with the medical evidence and her prior statements. For example, Plaintiff alleged she could no longer hold her bladder. Tr. 258. However, Plaintiff previously reported to doctors that she had no problems controlling her bladder. Tr. 532, 537. Plaintiff also alleged she was unable to drive. Tr. 258. Yet, Plaintiff stated she was able to drive prior to that report, tr. 233, and, within that same report, stated that she should not be driving because she is on medication. Tr. 263. Likewise, Plaintiff alleged she could no longer wash her hair or do dishes. Tr. 263. At the same time, Plaintiff indicated cleaning up dinner every night, explicitly stated that she does the dishes as daily chores, and that she has no trouble with taking care of her hair. Tr. 230-32. Additionally, Plaintiff described dropping items ...