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Scafidi v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 7, 2017


          DREW L. JOHNSON, JOHN E. HAAPALA, JR., Attorneys for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS, States Attorney District of Oregon JANICE E. HEBERT Assistant United States Attorney

          JORDAN D. GODDARD Social Security Administration Office of the General Counsel Attorneys for Defendant


          Malcolm F. Marsh United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Michelle M. Scafidi seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, and denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-I383f, This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. \


         Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB and SSI applications on March 22, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 15, 2011, due to fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart disease, back and leg pain, depression, arthritis, neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and degenerative disc disease. Tr. Soc. Sec. Admin. R. ("Tr.") 259, ECF No. 12. Plaintiffs claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ held a hearing on August 29, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expert, Stephen R. Cardinal, also appeared at the hearing and testified. On January 9, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.

         Plaintiff was born in 1962, and was 49 years old on the alleged onset of disability date, and 52 years old on the date of the hearing. Plaintiff completed high school, and attended cosmetology school for two years, Tr. 26, 45, 751. Plaintiff has past relevant work as a meat wrapper and cook, and also has worked as a cashier, day care provider, and barista. Tr. 26, 45, 48.


         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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Valentine v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 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, 698F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2017. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity; diabetic peripheral neuropathy of the lower extremities; moderate carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post right side release; meralgia paresthetica; fibromyalgia; lumbar degenerative disc disease; cervical degenerative disc disease; well-controlled diabetes mellitus, status-post thyroid ablation; sleep apnea; depressive disorder; and panic disorder. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of light work with additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] can lift 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently, [Plaintiff] can sit, stand, and walk, each up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday for a combined total of 8 hours of activity. [Plaintiff] requires the option to changes positions from standing to seated three times an hour, while still performing essential tasks. [Plaintiff] can frequently handle; and frequently finger, and feel with the dominant, right upper extremity. [Plaintiff] can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] should not be exposed to hazards, such as unprotected heights, and large moving equipment. [Plaintiff] can never crawl. [Plaintiff] can frequently balance, and occasionally stoop, crouch, and kneel. [Plaintiff] is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in a setting with no more than occasional public contact.

Tr. 19.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including such representative occupations as: mail clerk, information router, and order filler. Alternatively, the ALJ found that if Plaintiff is limited to no more than occasional handling bilaterally, the following representative occupations are within Plaintiffs RFC and exist in significant numbers: wire worker, collater operator, and key cutter. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act from August 15, 2011 through the date of the decision.


         On appeal to this court, Plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated her testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of treating physician Arezo Fathie, M.D., examining psychologist Alison Prescott, Ph.D., and examining physician Alec Fedorov, M.D., and (3) the RFC fails to incorporate all of her limitations. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error, Alternatively, the Commissioner contends that even if the ALJ erred, Plaintiff has not demonstrated harmful error.


         The district 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); 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. Garrison v. Cohin, 759F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014); 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. Bat son 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); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010.


         I. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating Plaintiffs 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. § 404.1529. 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, 1166 (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); Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 493 (9th Cir. 2015). Factors the ALJ may consider when making such credibility determinations include the objective medical evidence, the claimant's treatment histoiy, the claimant's daily activities, and inconsistencies in testimony.[1] Ghanim, 763 F.3d at 1163; Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1039.

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she takes a variety of medication for her ailments, and that they cause her to become fatigued. Tr. 57. Plaintiff testified that she takes pain medication for her feet, aims, ...

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