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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 30, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration Defendant



         Plaintiff Kenyari Williams brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Because the Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on May 15, 2012, alleging disability beginning on September 28, 1990. Tr. 14.[1] The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. Following a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 11. The Appeals Council denied the request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3. This appeal followed.


         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 for 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, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both supporting and deterring evidence from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The ALJ may “reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 493 (9th Cir. 2015) (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1029, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007)).

         The Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record; if evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the Commissioner's decision. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193; Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1034-35 (9th Cir. 2000). A reviewing court, however, “cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision on a ground that the Administration did not invoke in making its decision.” Stout v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). A court may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of a harmless error. Id. at 1055- 56. “[T]he burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.” Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009). The ALJ is the final arbiter with respect to resolving ambiguities in the medical evidence. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th. Cir. 2008).

         The ALJ need not discuss all evidence presented, but must explain why significant probative evidence has been rejected. Stark v. Shalala, 886 F.Supp. 733, 735 (D. Or. 1995). See also Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1012 (9th Cir. 2003) (in interpreting the evidence and developing the record, the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence).


         The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate 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 reviewing agency determines that the claimant is or is not disabled at any step of the evaluation process, the evaluation will not go onto the next step. Id.

         Here, the ALJ found at step one of the sequential analysis that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2012, the application date. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found she suffered from the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and speech problems. Tr. 17. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         At step four, the ALJ found the Plaintiff's RFC allowed her to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations: she is limited to simple routine tasks at no more than a specialized vocational preparation (SVP) of 1 or 2; requiring no more than occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. Tr. 21. Given these restrictions, and relying on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative medium work, unskilled (SVP-2) occupations such as janitor, or laundry worker. Tr. 25. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

         I. Medical Source Opinions.

         Ms. Williams asserts that the ALJ improperly ignored the medical opinions of Dr. Ronald Duvall, Ph.D. and Dr. James Bryan, Ph.D. Pl.'s Br. 5, 8, ECF No. 19. Dr. Duvall examined Ms. Williams in August of 2012. Tr. 284-288. Dr. Duvall found Ms. Williams to have “significant” problems with attention, concentration, and working memory. Id. He did not indicate the degree to which these problems would affect her ability to function. At most, Dr. Duvall states that ‚Äúthese problems impaired her work performance ...

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