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Knuckles v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

March 30, 2018



          Ann Aiken United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Eddie Lee Knuckles brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         On July 20, 2011, plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI. He alleged disability beginning November 5, 2010, due to chromium exposure, ankylosing spondylitis, and alcohol abuse. Plaintiffs DIB and SSI applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, with the reconsideration denial dated June 19, 2012. On October 11, 2013, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an ALJ and testified. A vocational expert ("VE") and plaintiffs sister, Cynthia Ann Humble, also testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. In a written decision issued October 30, 2013, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. On June 14, 2015, the Appeals council issued an order remanding the matter to the ALJ for a new hearing. A second hearing before the ALJ was held on January 14, 2016. Plaintiff and a VE testified at the hearing. On February 25, 2016, the ALJ again issued a written decision finding plaintiff not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed the present complaint.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "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." Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is subject to more than one interpretation but the Commissioner's decision is rational, the Commissioner must be affirmed, because "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         The initial burden of proof rests upon plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, plaintiff 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 sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged disability onset date of November 5, 2010. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(i), (b); id. §§ 4l6.92O(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments as of the alleged onset Dated: ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, status-post rotator cuff surgery, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), and depression. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), (c); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(h), (c).

         At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not meet or equal "one of the listed impairments" that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii), (d); id. §§ 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         The ALJ then assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id. § 416.920(e). The ALJ found that plaintiff has the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following limitations. The claimant is limited to no more than occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, balancing, crawling, and climbing. The claimant would also need to avoid more than occasional exposure to fumes, dust, gases, poor ventilation, and other noxious odors. The claimant would be limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks requiring no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.

Tr. 24. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), (f). At step five, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform work existing in the national economy; specifically, plaintiff could work as a painter, building maintenance manager, and general labor, landscaping. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied his applications for benefits.


         Plaintiff makes several assignments of error, arguing that: 1.) the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence offered by treating and other sources, 2.) the ALJ erred in assessing in plaintiffs RFC, 3.) the ALJ erred in discrediting plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony, 4.) the ALJ erred in discrediting lay witness statements, and 5.) the ALJ erred in his step five finding. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and in any error that may have been committed was harmless. I address each of plaintiffs arguments in turn.

         I. Evaluation of Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in not fulling crediting the limitations set forth by Dr. Mark Hughes M.D., plaintiffs treating physician, and Counselor Karen Ludwig, LPC.

         "In disability benefits cases . . . physicians may render medical, clinical opinions, or they may render opinions on the ultimate issue of disability-the claimant's ability to perform work." Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in the medical evidence, and resolving ambiguities." Vazquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         There are three types of medical opinions in Social Security disability cases: those of treating, examining, and reviewing physicians. Holohan v. Massanari,246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001). "Generally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician's." Id. at 1202; accord 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). "[C]lear and convincing" reasons are required to reject a treating doctor's ultimate conclusions. Lester v. Chater,81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). When a treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the Commissioner may not reject this opinion unless the Commissioner ...

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