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Clouse v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 22, 2017

STACEY A. CLOUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          John E. Haapala, Jr. Attorney for Plaintiff

          Janice E. Hebert Assistant United States Attorney

          Gerald Hill Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stacey Clouse brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c) (3)). The Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 16, 2012, alleging an onset date of November 20, 2011. Tr. 166.[1] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 75-87, 97-100. On January 11, 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI. Tr. 171-76. On May 8, 2014, Plaintiff appeared, with counsel, for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 26-59. Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2013. Tr. 34. On May 29, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 20. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 2.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges disability based on varicose veins and blood clots in her legs which cause pain and inflammation, or phlebitis. Tr. 31, 37, 188. Plaintiff was 45 years-old at the time of the administrative hearing. Id. Plaintiff attended college and was a certified pharmacy technician. Tr. 194.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. See, e.g., Valentine v. Comm'r, 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         In step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment meets or equals “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         In step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. In step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets his burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. Tr. 12. Next, at steps two and three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: varicose veins and obesity. Id. However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 13. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and § 416.967(a), “except she is further limited to no more than occasional pushing and pulling with her bilateral lower extremities. Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 18. However, at step five the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as addresser, sorter, and photocopy machine operator. Tr. 19. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 20.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). It is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.

         The court must weigh the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998)). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading. Id.; see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. However, the court cannot not rely upon reasoning the ALJ did not assert in affirming the ALJ's findings. Bray, 554 F.3d at 1225-26 (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947)).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by (1) rejecting the opinion of treating physician Dr. McMahon; (2) discounting Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) dismissing the testimony of Plaintiff's significant other, Mr. Maerz. The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in his treatment of Dr. McMahon's opinion but otherwise affirms the ALJ's conclusions.

         I. Treating Physician Dr. McMahon

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by rejecting treating provider Dr. McMahon's opinion. There are three types of medical opinions in social security cases: those from treating, examining, and non-examining doctors. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is entitled to “special weight” because “he is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual.” Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). The ALJ may reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining physician by providing clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31; Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1043.

         If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence. Barnhart, 427 F.3d at 1216 (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31). “The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). Further, an ALJ may reject a physician's opinion if it conflicts with the physician's other findings. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). Although the contrary opinion of a non-treating medical expert does not alone constitute a specific, ...


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