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Edwards v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 7, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Michael McShane United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jason Lee Edwards brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         On October 14, 2010, Edwards filed his application for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of that date. After a hearing, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) determined Edwards was not disabled under the Social Security Act from October 14, 2010 through August 30, 2012. Tr. 597.[1] Edwards appealed and, following a stipulated remand from the district court, the ALJ conducted two more hearings. Following those hearings, the ALJ again concluded Edwards was not disabled. Tr. 554-55. This appeal followed.

         Edwards argues the ALJ erred in finding him less-than credible, in rejecting the opinion of his treating physician and in weighing other medical opinions, in not finding several impairments to be “severe” at step two, in rejecting the opinions of Edwards's mother and father, and in formulating an insufficient residual functional capacity (“RFC”) at step five, leading to an erroneous hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”). Many of Edwards's assignments of error are somewhat generalized arguments essentially attacking the RFC while arguing the evidence demonstrates Edwards is disabled. I consider Edwards's main arguments to be that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of his treating physician and in finding that Edwards could read at the General Educational Development (“GED”) level of one. Because the Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         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'r 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)).


         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 (2012). The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If the claimant satisfies his 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 must show 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. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

         As relevant here, the ALJ ultimately found Edwards had the RFC to perform light work provided: the work was unskilled, entry level work in a routine environment; Edwards have no “transactional” work with the public; the job has GED reasoning, language, and mathematical development levels of one. Tr. 536. Based on the VE's testimony, a person with such an RFC could perform the jobs of laundry worker and room cleaner. Tr. 544. As noted, Edwards makes several assignments of error.

         I turn first to the argument that the ALJ improperly rejected the medical opinion of Dr. Steve Becker, Edwards's longstanding treating physician. Dr. Becker was Edwards's primary care physician for many years. Dr. Becker treated Edwards for many ailments ranging from tooth aches to anxiety issues to back problems. Edwards points to three comments Dr. Becker wrote in chart notes. On September 20, 2011, Dr. Becker noted, “applying for disability but has been denied, now going through court; it would seem unlikely he can pursue gainful employment.” Tr. 438. On February 2, 2012, Dr. Becker commented, “long standing hx psycho-neuro dysfunction with diagnosis of dementia along with depression and anxiety; he is unlikely to be able to maintain gainful employment; he would seem an appropriate candidate for disability.” Tr. 435.

         On May 11, 2015, Dr. Becker wrote, “Long standing history of learning disability, cognitive dysfunction and now with diagnosis of Gerstamann syndrome per specialty clinic in 2010-he has been unable to pursue any reliable employment, he continues to seek disability which would appear to be appr[o]priate given his long standing limitations.” Tr. 727.

         Regarding Dr. Becker's opinions, the ALJ concluded:

In January 2012 and again in June 2015, Dr. Becker opined that the claimant was unlikely to be able to maintain gainful employment and he was unable to pursue “any reliable employment.” He felt the claimant would be an appropriate candidate for disability. Little weight is given to these opinions. To begin, they are conclusory and not offered in functional terms. Additionally, they are inconsistent with the claimant's own reports of searching for work and his own report that he believed he was unable to obtain work due to a lack of a high school diploma. They are also inconsistent with Dr. Becker's treatment records. For example, his treatment note from May 2015 shows the claimant's neurologic examination was normal, and on the SLUMS examination, the claimant's score of 22 was consistent with mild cognitive dysfunction. Moreover, his opinion from 2015 appears to be in part based on his belief the claimant was diagnosed with ...

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