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Karie K. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

July 27, 2018

KARIE K., [1] Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Karie K. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security 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 Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed, BACKGROUND

         In March 2013, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. She alleged disability beginning March 27, 2013, [3] due to hyperthyroidism, depression, Attention Deficit Disorder, and sleep deprivation. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, On March 2, 2016, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an ALJ. At that hearing, she was represented by a non-attorney representative. On March 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court.


         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. Massanar, 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." Edhmd v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         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 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. Tr. 22; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); id. § 416, 920(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff suffers from "the following severe impairments: personality disorder, not otherwise specified with schizotypal traits; dysthymic disorder; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; dependent personality disorder; attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); major depressive disorder and history of alcohol abuse[.]" Tr. 22; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h), (c); id. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c).

         At step three, the ALJ determined 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. Tr. 24; 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). The ALJ found plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: The claimant is capable of understanding, remembering and carrying out simple, repetitive tasks involving no more than occasional contact with the public and coworkers." Tr. 26; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id. § 416.920(e).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff could perform her past work as a food preparer/cook helper. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f); id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). In the alternative, the ALJ found at step five that plaintiff could perform the jobs of janitor, hand packager, or laborer of stores. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1); id. § 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied her applications for benefits, DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ committed several harmful errors in issuing her disability decision. First, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision to give partial or no weight to the opinions of two examining doctors. Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ rejected plaintiffs description of her subjective symptoms without providing clear, convincing reasons for that rejection. Third, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly discounted the third-party statement of plaintiffs friend, And fourth, plaintiff avers that the ALJ erred at step four when she concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing her past work.

         I. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of two examining doctors: Paula Belcher, Ph.D, and Mary Bean, Ph.D. 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; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). Where there is a conflict between two medical opinions, the ALJ may rely on the medical opinion of a non-treating doctor instead of the contrary opinion of a treating doctor only if the ALJ provides "specific and legitimate" reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record, Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202. Medical opinions may address both the nature of the plaintiffs limitations and the ultimate issue of disability, i.e., whether the plaintiff is capable of any work, given her limitations. Id. Although the ultimate decision regarding disability is reserved to the Commissioner, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)(1), the rules governing consideration of medical opinions apply with equal force to opinions on the ultimate issue of disability, Reddick v. Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir, 1998).

         A. Opinion of Dr. Belcher

         Dr. Belcher performed a psychological assessment of plaintiff in October 2013. She observed that plaintiff had "a rather odd presentation" and was "somewhat scattered in her thought processes. Her manner of speech is odd, with latent responses and mutterings to herself at times. She perseverates about wireless services causing health problems for herself and others." Tr. 436. Dr. Belcher documented "symptoms of depression that meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, which appears to be recurrent" yet "mild" and "does not appear to interfere significantly in daily functioning or in her infrequent social activities." Id. Dr. Belcher noted plaintiffs sporadic work history and opined that "she is likely a poor employee due to her odd manners of speech and beliefs," Id. The ALJ gave "some weight" to Dr. Belcher's assessment because it was "consistent with the claimant's mental status exam" and "generally consistent with claimant's demonstrated function/reported activities[.]" Tr, 31. However, the ALJ gave "little weight to the psychologist's opinion that claimant is 'likely to be a poor employee due to her odd manner of speech and beliefs.'" Id. (quoting Tr, 436). The ALJ found that particular statement was "not tantamount to ...

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