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Clayton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 2, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Michael McShane United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Bobbi Joanne Clayton (“Clayton”) brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Because the Commissioner's decision is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, the decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Clayton applied for benefits on February 14, 2014 and alleged disability onset as of May 2, 2009. Tr. 71.[1] Clayton's date last insured (“DLI”) was March 31, 2012. Tr. 199. Clayton alleged disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), chronic pain and loss of strength in her left shoulder, chronic pain in her left hip, and obesity. Tr. 205.

         Clayton's claim was heard by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Linda Tommasson on April 9, 2016. Tr. 96, 150. The ALJ denied Clayton's claim on May 31, 2016. Tr. 104. Clayton subsequently filed this appeal.


         A reviewing court shall affirm the decision of the Commissioner if her 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 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, the district court must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).


         The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 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 the claimant satisfies that burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner must show that 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, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Clayton engaged in substantial gainful activity for one month during the pertinent time frame. Tr. 98. At step two, the ALJ found that Clayton had severe impairments of a status post gunshot wound to her left shoulder and a status post gunshot wound to her left hip through her DLI. Tr. 99. At step three, the ALJ found that Clayton's impairments did not satisfy any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525, App. 1. Tr. 99.

         The ALJ then determined Clayton's RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545; 404.1569(a). Clayton's RFC allowed her to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that Clayton would not be able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffold and could not frequently reach for things with her left arm. Tr. 100. At step four, the ALJ held that Clayton was capable of resuming past work as a customer service representative, policyholder information clerk, insurance producer, telemarketer, insurance processor, and administrative clerk. Tr. 103. Despite finding that Clayton was capable of past work, the ALJ continued on to step five and further determined that other jobs existed in the national economy that Clayton could have performed. Tr. 104. These occupations were file clerk, general office clerk, and food assembler. Tr. 104. Consequently, the ALJ decided that Clayton was not disabled under the Social Security Act through her DLI. Tr. 104-05.

         Clayton argues that the ALJ erred because she (1) failed to develop the medical record, (2) improperly weighed the treating physician's testimony, (3) failed to properly consider Clayton's symptom testimony, and (4) improperly weighed the testimony from lay witnesses. For the reasons discussed below, the ALJ's decision is AFFIRMED.

         A. Failure to Develop the Medical Record

         Clayton argues that it was legal error to not call a medical expert to help determine her onset date for PTSD. I disagree.

         Determining Clayton's onset date was crucial in finding whether Clayton was entitled to disability benefits. During her hearing with the ALJ, counsel for Clayton requested that the ALJ call a medical advisor to help determine an onset date. Tr. 67. The ALJ denied the request because she believed that the unique nature of PTSD ...

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