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Maiden v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 27, 2018

JESSICA MARIANNE MAIDEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael McShane, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jessica Marianne Maiden (“Maiden”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Because the Commissioner's decision is not based on proper legal standards or supported by substantial evidence, the decision is REVERSED, and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Maiden filed applications for SSI on March 7, 2013, and children's disability benefits under Title II on April 4, 2013, alleging disability onset dates of January 1, 1997, and December 1, 2014, respectively. Tr. 84-87.[1] After the Commissioner denied the applications initially and upon reconsideration, Maiden requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on November 10, 2015. Tr. 35-53.[2]. On December 1, 2015, ALJ Paul G. Robeck issued a written decision finding Maiden not disabled. Tr. 20-28. On January 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Maiden's subsequent request for review, so the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3. This appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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, I 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)).

         DISCUSSION

         A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine disability. 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 a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner must 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 Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is found not disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

         At step one, the ALJ determined Maiden had not worked since March 7, 2013, the application date. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Maiden had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; depression; and anxiety. Tr. 22. The ALJ noted that Maiden's psoriatic arthritis was well-controlled with Humira, and therefore did not find it “severe.” Tr. 23. Between steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Maiden's RFC. He determined Maiden retains the capacity to perform light work, except that she is limited to unskilled work with incidental public contact and occasional postural activities. Tr. 24. At step four, the ALJ found Maiden did not have any past relevant work. Tr. 27. At step five, based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Maiden could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including photocopy machine operator, and seedling sorter. Tr. 27-28.

         Maiden contends the ALJ: (1) erroneously discredited her symptom testimony; and (2) erroneously discredited the opinion of her treating physician in favor of the state agency physician's opinions.

         I. Credibility Analysis

         Maiden argues the ALJ erred by rejecting her subjective symptom testimony. An ALJ is not “required to believe every allegation of disabling pain, or else disability benefits would be available for the asking, a result plainly contrary to 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A).” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 603 (9th Cir.1989)). The ALJ “may consider a range of factors in assessing credibility.” Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014). These factors can include “ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, ” id., as well as:

(1) whether the claimant engages in daily activities inconsistent with the alleged symptoms; (2) whether the claimant takes medication or undergoes other treatment for the symptoms; (3) whether the claimant fails to follow, without adequate explanation, a prescribed course of treatment; and (4) whether the alleged symptoms are consistent with the medical evidence.

Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1040 (9th Cir.2007). However, a negative credibility finding made solely because the claimant's symptom testimony “is not substantiated affirmatively by objective medical evidence” is legally insufficient. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Nonetheless, the ALJ's credibility finding may be upheld even if not all of the ...


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