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Jennifer D. W. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 14, 2018

JENNIFER D. W., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Mustafa T. Kasubhai United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Jennifer W. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         On December 19, 2014 Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability as of September 20, 2014. Tr. 166-67.[2] Plaintiff was denied initially upon application and upon reconsideration. Tr. 75-86, 87-97. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held and on June 29, 2017, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and denied her claim. Tr. 13-22. The Appeals Council denied the request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1. This appeal followed.

         Plaintiff now contends that the ALJ erred: (1) in failing to provide a legally sufficient reason to discount the opinion of treating physician Dr. House; (2) in rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and (3) in failing to properly credit lay-witness testimony. For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this matter REMANDED for an immediate award of benefits.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r for 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, this court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

         DISCUSSION

         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. If the claimant satisfied her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner with regard to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to 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.

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 20, 2014. Tr. 15. A step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; and cervical degenerative disc disease, status post fusion. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 17.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC allowed her to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) except she can occasionally reach overhead to the left and to the right. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Plaintiff's time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks. Tr. 17. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a secretary, personnel clerk, and lending activities supervisor. Tr. 21. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was “not disabled” for purposes of the Social Security Act and therefore did not qualify for benefits. Tr. 22.

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's non-disability determination on three grounds. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons to discount the opinion of Dr. House. Second, the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. And third, the ALJ erred in failing to properly credit lay-witness testimony.

         I. Treating physician's opinion

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's decision to give Dr. House's opinions “little weight.” Pl.'s Br. 4. The ALJ found that Dr. House's opinions where “not supported with relevant evidence.” Tr. 19. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider the appropriate regulatory factors for weighing treating physician opinions. Pl.'s Br. 4. Relying on Trevizo v. Berryhill[3] Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's failure to consider the length of treating relationship, frequency of medical examinations, nature and extent of treatment relationship constitutes reversible error. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ correctly discounted Dr. House's opinions as laid out in her April 2017 letter because they were not supported by relevant evidence. Def.'s Br. 8. The ALJ's decision concludes that the medical record objective evidence does not support the allegations of disabling physical functioning. Tr. 18-19. “The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Here, a review of the medical record demonstrates that it contains ample objective evidence supporting Dr. House's opinion regarding the severity of Plaintiff's limitations. In her April 2017 letter, Dr. House assessed that due to “her well-established disabling diagnoses of cervical and lumbosacral disc disease with ongoing radiculopathies and permanent nerve damage, degenerative disc disease throughout her spine, all complicated by fibromyalgia, ” Plaintiff “requires frequent position changes including the ability to lay down, and has difficulty typing.” Tr. 764-65. Plaintiff “cannot sit longer than 30 minutes (even in an ergonomic chair), cannot stand for more than 5-10 ...


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