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Wolf v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 16, 2015

ANITA WOLF, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Anita Wolf brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

The issues before this Court are: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating the medical opinions of Drs. MacNeal, Clements, and Movius; (2) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's credibility; (3) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating a lay witness's credibility; and (4) whether additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council undermines the evidentiary basis for the ALJ's findings. Because the ALJ articulated sufficient reasons supported by substantial evidence in his evaluation of the respective evidence and, to the extent that he erred, such errors were harmless, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for DIB on June 11, 2009, alleging disability since January 1, 2006. Tr. 91, 109, 199-202. This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 91, 141-42, 145-48, 151-53. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and appeared before the Honorable Jo Hoenninger on October 2, 2012. Tr. 91, 103-40. ALJ Hoenninger denied plaintiff's claim by a written decision dated October 26, 2012. Tr. 91-98. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 5-8. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

Plaintiff, born on September 21, 1959, tr. 97, 109, 135, obtained her Bachelor of Science degree, tr. 111, 220, and worked most recently as a registered nurse (1989-2009), tr. 112, 203-05. Plaintiff was forty-six at the time of alleged disability onset and fifty-three at the time of her hearing. See tr. 97, 109, 135. Plaintiff alleges disability due to obesity and degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine. See tr. 93, 108.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

DISCUSSION

The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's disability decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on an application of incorrect legal standards. In particular, plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions of Drs. MacNeal, Clements, and Movius; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's credibility; (3) the ALJ erred in evaluating a lay witness's credibility; and (4) additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council undermineS the evidentiary basis for the ALJ's findings.

I. Medical Opinions

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating: a letter submitted by treating physician Dr. MacNeal, see tr. 292; functional limitations identified by examining physician Dr. Clements, see tr. 372-77; and a physical ability assessment form submitted by treating physician Dr. Movius, see tr. 358-62. In response, defendant argues that the ALJ provided sufficient reasons for according "significant weight" to Dr. MacNeal's letter and partially rejecting the functional limitations identified by Dr. Clements. See Def.'s Br. 5-9, ECF No. 10. Defendant also argues that the ALJ's failure to address functional limitations identified by Dr. Movius constitutes a harmless error. See id. at 9-10.

"To reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995)). "If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contracted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citation omitted). When evaluating conflicting medical opinions, an ALJ need not accept a brief, conclusory, or inadequately supported opinion. Id. (citing Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001)).

A. Dr. MacNeal

Plaintiff met with Nancy J. MacNeal, M.D., more than fifteen times between March 2005 and August 2012.[1] On or about September 23, 2009, Dr. MacNeal submitted a letter responding to an agency request for information relating to plaintiff's functional limitations. In that letter, Dr. MacNeal explained:

[I]t is this examiner's opinion that the only problem [plaintiff] has is standing for long durations over an operating table which produces low back pain. Mrs. Wolf absolutely refuses to use narcotics while on the job, [and] isn't interested in retraining for a different position. While I am sympathetic to her problem of chronic back pain, there are many, many other people I attend who manage to hold down more physically challenging positions tha[n] her position. There are positions that she could do within her own profession with her current limitation that she has decided she doesn't want to pursue, one example would be a sit down job as a triage nurse. I was frankly shocked that her employer's long term disability plan accepted her claim. After attending her for over 4 years, I see a woman who makes up her mind that this is how it is going to be and will not back down until she gets what she wants. It is very difficult to get her to open her mind and look at other options.

Tr. 292; see also tr. 308, 395 (In a treatment note dated December 26, 2006, Dr. MacNeal reported that she didn't "frankly see why [plaintiff] couldn't find a sedentary job in nursing like so many others and get a strong sense that she doesn't want to work if it means she needs to take med[ications] for back pain."). The ALJ, having reviewed this letter, gave "Dr. MacNeal's opinion significant weight" because it was based upon an extended ...


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