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Pittman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 7, 2017

WENDY KIM PITTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL J. MCSHANE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Wendy Kim Pittman seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         Ms. Pittman applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on May 1, 2012, alleging disability beginning April 29, 2012. Tr. 16. She applied for a hearing after her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 16, 88-91, 93-95. After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a written decision finding that Ms. Pittman is not disabled. Tr. 13-34. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Pittman's request for review of the hearing decision on January 19, 2016, making the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1-4. Ms. Pittman argues that the ALJ erred by failing (1) to credit the opinion of examining psychologist, Dr. Wahl; (2) to give proper consideration to the opinion of treating psychiatrist, Dr. Martin; (3) to give clear and convincing reasons for not crediting Ms. Pittman's testimony; and (4) to give proper consideration to Ms. Pittman's husband's lay witness testimony. Additionally, Ms. Pittman claims that the Commissioner failed to prove that Ms. Pittman retains the ability to perform "other work." For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         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 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 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 v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, we review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989). "'If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ' the reviewing court 'may not substitute its judgment' for that of the Commissioner." Gutierrez v. Comm V of Soc. Sec. Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1996)).

         DISCUSSION

         A claimant is disabled if she cannot "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). The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012). The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps but shifts to the Commissioner for step five if claimant satisfies her burden with respect to the first four steps. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At step one, the SSA considers whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if she is, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step two, the SSA considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairment. Id. The agency will find the claimant not disabled if the impairment is not severe enough. Id. At step three, the claimant will be found disabled if her impairment is of sufficient duration and it meets or equals a list of impairments. Id. If the impairment does not meet these requirements, then the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined. Id. The claimant's RFC is an assessment of the greatest level of work that she can do based on an analysis of the effects of all limitations evident in her record on the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step four, the SSA looks at the claimant's past work and RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the claimant is able to do her past work the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step five, the Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating that although the claimant is unable to do past relevant work she is capable of making an adjustment to other work. Id. To make that determination, the SSA considers the claimant's vocational factors: her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. If the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Pittman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the claimed disability date. Tr, 18. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Pittman's "partial complex seizures; cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified; major depressive disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; and generalized anxiety disorder" qualified as severe impairments under 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c). Tr. 18. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Pittman's impairments did not meet or equal any listed impairment. Tr. 18. Between steps three and four, the ALJ found Ms. Pittman had the RFC "to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels" with nonexertional exceptions. Tr. 20. At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Pittman was unable to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 27. At step five, the ALJ found that Ms. Pittman was not disabled because there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. Tr. 27. In doing so, the ALJ considered Ms, Pittman's age, education, work experience, and RFC. Tr. 27.

          I. Medical Opinions

          Ms. Pittman contends that the ALJ wrongly discounted the opinions of both an examining psychologist, Dr. James Wahl, and the treating psychiatrist, Dr. James Martin. An ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in order to reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining physician. Ghanim v, Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1160-61 (9th Cir. 2014). That said, the ALJ is responsible for resolving ambiguities in the medical evidence. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008)(citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995)). The ALJ can resolve ambiguities in medical evidence and meet the burden for rejecting a physician's opinion "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986)(citing Swanson v. Secretary, 763 F.2d 1061, 1065 (9th Cir. 1985)). The ALJ met that burden here.

         a. Dr. Wahl's Opinion

         Ms. Pittman argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of her examining psychologist, Dr. Wahl. Dr. Wahl evaluated Ms. Pittman once, on October 11, 2012. Tr. 256-65. The ALJ gave significant weight to Dr. Wahl's objective test results, but only some weight to Dr. Wahl's opinion. Tr. 24. Ultimately, she found his single evaluation of Ms. Pittman to be less consistent with the evidence of record than that of Dr. Martin, the treating psychiatrist. Tr. 25. Ms. Pittman asserts that the ALJ did not actually give significant weight to the objective test results, because Dr. Wahl's tests document Ms. Pittman's markedly impaired concentration and pace, which the ALJ discounted. In making this argument, Ms. Pittman ...


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