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Nowlin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 25, 2015

MICHELE NOWLIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

STACIE F. BECKERMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Michele Nowlin challenges the Commissioner's decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History [1]

On June 9, 2010, Nowlin protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability since October 1, 1998, due to musculoskeletal impairments, asthma, mood disorder, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and personality disorder. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Nowlin filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). On December 19, 2012, Nowlin, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an ALJ.

On January 10, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Nowlin not disabled, as defined by the Act. Nowlin filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision. On June 4, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Nowlin's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210. Nowlin then filed her Complaint for review by this Court.

B. Factual History

The parties do not dispute the relevant facts. Nowlin was 40 years old on the date her application was filed. She has at least a high school education, but she has no past relevant work history. (Pl.'s Brief 3.)

C. The ALJ's Decision

In denying Nowlin's application, the ALJ applied the five-step disability evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Lester v. Chafer, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir.1995) (describing the five-step process). At step one, the ALJ found Nowlin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 9, 2010, the date she filed her SSI application. At step two, the ALJ determined Nowlin suffered from a number of severe impairments, including "reconstructive surgery of the knees, chronic back and neck pain, asthma complicated by smoking, mood disorder, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and personality disorder." (Tr. 18.)[2] Notwithstanding a finding of severe impairments, the ALJ concluded Nowlin was not automatically presumed disabled at step three, because her condition did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments. 20 C.P.R., Pt. 4, Subpt. P, App. 1. Consequently, the ALJ's non-disability decision turns on his assessment of Nowlin's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and application of this RFC assessment at steps four and five. See 20 C.P.R. § 404.1520(4) ("Before we go from step three to step four, we assess your residual functional capacity.... We use this residual functional capacity assessment at both step four and step five when we evaluate your claim at these steps.").

In assessing Nowlin's RFC, the ALJ found she retained the capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CPR 416.967(b) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or work at unprotected heights. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, crouch, and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to noxious fumes and odors. She is limited to simple, entry-level work. She is capable of occasional interaction with the public but no transactional interaction. She is capable of occasional interaction with coworkers.

(Tr. 19.) Although the ALJ recognized Nowlin testified to additional limitations that would establish a significantly lower RFC, he rejected her subjective testimony as "not entirely credible." (Tr. 20.) Nowlin does not challenge this adverse credibility finding. Specifically, the ALJ found that Nowlin's allegations of debilitating symptoms were not supported by the treatment record, and her credibility was undermined by evidence of drug-seeking behavior. (Tr. 20.)

On the basis of this RFC assessment and the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), at step four the ALJ found that a transfer of job skills was not an issue because Nowlin had no past relevant work. Consequently, the ALJ proceeded to step five, where he determined Nowlin was not disabled because she retained the capacity to perform other work that existed in sufficient numbers in the national economy. In making this determination, the ALJ posed a hypothetical question to the VE based upon Nowlin's RFC. In response, the VE ...


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