United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
SONJA M. HOFFMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Sonja M. Hoffman brings this action pursuant to the Social
Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (the
“Commissioner”) denying her Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. 42
U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., 1381 et
seq. For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the
applied for SSI and DIB on March 21, 2013. Tr.
184-97. She claimed disability beginning May 30,
2004, later amended to September 18, 2009. Tr. 184, 322-23.
Her claim was denied initially on October 21, 2013, and on
reconsideration on March 10, 2014. Tr. 71-96, 97-122. A
hearing was held January 26, 2015, before Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) Katherine Weatherly. Tr. 32-70.
Plaintiff testified at the hearing, represented by counsel; a
vocational expert (“VE”), Mark McGowan, also
testified. Id. On February 23, 2015, the ALJ issued
a decision finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act and
denying benefits. Tr. 11-26. Plaintiff requested review
before the Appeals Council, which was denied June 13, 2016.
Tr. 1-7. Plaintiff then sought review before this
1966, plaintiff graduated from high school and attended
college for two years. Tr. 38, 184. She has taken online
coursework toward a medical transcriptionist degree. Tr.
41-42. She has worked in retail as sales clerk and manager.
Tr. 47-48. Plaintiff has been diagnosed with depression,
anxiety, left knee degenerative joint disease, right knee
medial meniscal tear, and obesity. Tr. 322-23, 332, 337, 392,
558, 611, 684, 691. Plaintiff has a history of
methamphetamine and cannabis abuse, in remission. Tr. 57,
658. She has received diagnoses of posttraumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”), or possible PTSD. Tr. 584,
587, 593. Plaintiff had surgery on her left knee on March 20,
2014. Tr. 692-93. She has fatty liver and possible
hepatosplenomegaly. Tr. 328, 336, 344. Plaintiff traces her
psychological issues to her mother's death about
seventeen years ago, and her son's in 2011. Tr. 54-55,
555. Plaintiff lives with her sister, is formerly married,
and has an adult daughter and grandchildren. Tr. 36-37, 407,
court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is
based on proper legal standards and the findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock
v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial
evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation omitted).
The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports
and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.”
Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir.
1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support
either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute
[its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v.
Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation
omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676,
680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court “must
uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”).
“[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as
a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific
quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation
initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish
disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486
(9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must
demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to
last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
Commissioner has established a five-step 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. First, the Commissioner
determines whether a claimant is engaged in
“substantial gainful activity”; if so, the
claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140;
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two,
the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a
“medically severe impairment or combination of
impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe
impairment is one “which significantly limits [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) &
416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At 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.” Id.; 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is
conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis
proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At this point,
the ALJ must evaluate medical and other evidence to assess
and determine the claimant's “residual functional
capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of
work-related activities that the claimant may still perform
on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations
imposed by her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). The
Commissioner proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether
the claimant can perform “past relevant work.”
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not
disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146
n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the
claimant can perform other work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) &
(f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.
first found that plaintiff meets the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2009. Tr. 13. At
step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability
onset. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff
had these severe impairments: left knee degenerative joint
disease status post arthroscopic surgery, right knee medial
meniscal tear, obesity, depressive disorder, anxiety/PTSD,
and polysubstance abuse disorder in remission. Id.
The ALJ found that plaintiff has nonsevere impairments
including hepatosplenomegaly, fatty liver, hypertension, and
hypothyroidism. Tr. 13-14. At step three, the ALJ found that
plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof
that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 14.
then found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform less than
light work, with various physical limitations, and limited to
simple, routine tasks, with occasional interpersonal
interaction. Tr. 16. In determining plaintiff's RFC, the
ALJ gave “partial weight” to the opinions of
consultative examining psychologist Manuel Gomes, Ph.D., and
“little weight” to the opinions of treating
physician Lyle Torguson, M.D., and treating counselor Jill
Robertson, MA, LPC, QMHP; the ALJ considered the third-party
function report of Chasity Pendergraft, plaintiff's
daughter, but faulted that report; also the ALJ discounted
plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms. Tr. 18, 20,
22-23. At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to
perform past relevant work. Tr. 24. At step five, the ALJ
found that plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy, including office
helper, photocopy machine operator, and meter reader. Tr.
25-26. The ALJ thus found plaintiff not disabled under the
Act and not entitled to benefits. Tr. 26.
argues that the ALJ erred in three regards: (1) in improperly
evaluating medical opinion evidence; (2) in failing to
properly account for lay witness testimony; and (3) in
finding plaintiff's symptom testimony not entirely
credible. The Court finds that the ALJ did not err in these
Medical Opinion Evidence
argues that the ALJ failed to give legally sufficient reasons
supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinions of
treating physician Lyle Torguson, M.D., consultative
examining psychologist Manuel Gomes, Ph.D., and treating
counselor Jill Robertson, MA, LPC, QMHP. Plaintiff also
contends that the ALJ failed to consider the opinions of
state agency consultant psychologists Dorothy Anderson,
Ph.D., and Kordell Kennemer, Psy.D.
weight given to the opinion of a physician depends on whether
the physician is a treating, examining, or nonexamining
physician. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202
(9th Cir. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527). If a
treating or examining physician's opinion is not
contradicted by another physician, the ALJ may only reject it
for clear and convincing reasons. Id. (treating
physician); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1067
(9th Cir. 2006) (examining physician). Even if it is
contradicted by another physician, the ALJ may not reject the
opinion without providing specific and legitimate reasons
supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Orn, 495 F.3d at 632; Widmark, 454 F.3d at
1066. “An ALJ can satisfy the ‘substantial
evidence' requirement by setting out a ...