United States District Court, D. Oregon
GEORGE J. WALT, Portland, OR. Attorney for Plaintiff
S. AMANDA MARSHALL, United States Attorney, District of Oregon, RONALD K. SILVER, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, OR.
Heather L. Griffith, Social Security Administration Office of the General Counsel, Seattle, WA. Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MALCOLM F. MARSH, District Judge.
Plaintiff Israel Ramone Hudson seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 401-403 and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) (3). For the reasons that follow, I affirm the final decision of the Commissioner.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on May 8, 2006, alleging disability beginning May 31, 2005, due to chronic pain in his arm as well as paranoia and depression. Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements for a DIB application on June 30, 2006.
On March 23, 2009, plaintiff appeared at a hearing with his attorney and testified. Plaintiff's girlfriend, Quantisha Barber, medical expert (ME) Robert H. Bigley, M.D., and vocational expert (VE) Gail Young also testified. The ALJ held supplemental hearing on May 26, 2009, at which plaintiff and Dr. Bigley testified. Paul Morrison, VE also testified at this second hearing. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 26, 2009. Tr. 198. Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which granted review and issued a January 29, 2010 order remanding the case to the ALJ. Tr. 211. At a December 13, 2010 hearing, plaintiff appeared with his attorney and testified. Tr. 86. David R. Rullman, M.D., ME and Carolyn Kay Wise, VE, also appeared and testified. Subsequently, the ALJ issued an un·favorable decision on December 20, 2010. Tr. 214. Plaintiff appealed, and Appeals Council granted review and issued an order again remanding the case to the ALJ on December 8, 2011.
On February 12, 2013, plaintiff appeared at a hearing with his attorney and testified. Tr. 36. William U. Weiss, Ph. D" ME and Jenipher Gaffney, VE, also testified. The ALJ issued a partially-favorable decision on February 28, 2013, finding plaintiff disabled as of November 3, 2011. Tr. 11. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's February 28, 2013 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.
Born in 1981, plaintiff was 31 years old on the date of the ALJ's adverse decision. Plaintiff has an eleventh grade education level. Plaintiff has no past relevant work.
THE ALJ'S DISABILITY ANALYSIS
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The ciaimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Valentine v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Achnin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy. Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of disability, May 31, 2005. At step two, the ALJ found that as of May 31, 2005, plaintiff had the following severe impairments: morbid obesity; status-post gunshot wound to the neck from a 2002 shooting; marijuana abuse; and alcohol abuse. The ALJ further found that as of November 3, 2011, plaintiff also had the severe impairment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At step three, the ALJ found that from May 31, 2005 through November 2, 2011, plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. The ALJ further found that on November 3, 2011, plaintiff's severe impairment of PTSD meets Listing 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders). Tr. 25-26; 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.06 (hereinafter Listing 12.06).
The ALJ assess.ed that from May 31, 2005 through November 2, 2011, plaintiff has a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that he can lift and carry up to ten pounds frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally, and sit, stand, and walk up to six hours in each activity (cumulatively, not consecutively) in a normal eight-hour workday with normal breaks; he can frequently climb stairs and ramps, but due to his right arm/shoulder complaints, he cannot climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolding. Plaintiff can also occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Because of his longstanding history of being prescribed Vicodin, plaintiff is limited ·to simple routine work. Due to his worsening PTSD symptoms, plaintiff is limited to work with no contact with the general public and no close interaction with co-workers.
At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff has no past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that prior to November 3, 2011, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, such as room cleaner, laundry sorter, and bench assembler. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act from May 31, 2005 through November 2, 2011. The ALJ further found that beginning November 3, 2011, plaintiff's PTSD meets the criteria of Listing 12.06. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has been under a disability under the Social Security Act from November 3, 2011 through the date of the decision.
ISSUES ON REVIEW
On appeal to this court, plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate plaintiff's testimony; (2) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of examining physician Joseph Balsamo, Psy.D.; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the lay testimony of Quantisha Barber.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (internal quotations omitted); Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be affirmed; "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).
I. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating Plaintiff's Credibility
To determine whether a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must perform two stages of analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.12629. The first stage is a threshold test in which the claimant must produce objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008). At the second stage of the credibility analysis, absent affirmative evidence of malingering, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of the symptoms. Carmickle v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1161 (9th Cir. 2008); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007).
The ALJ must make findings that are sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony. Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014); Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1039. Factors the ALJ may consider when making such credibility determinations include the objective medical evidence, the claimant's treatment history, the claimant's daily activities, inconsistencies in testimony, effectiveness or adverse ...