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Hoffman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

January 5, 2018

SONJA M. HOFFMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff 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 Commissioner's decision.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB on March 21, 2013. Tr. 184-97.[1] 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 Court.[2]

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Born in 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, 555.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The 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 omitted).

         The 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).

         The 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.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff 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 regards.

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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 ...


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