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Vickie C. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 4, 2019

VICKIE C.,[1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael McShane United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Vickie C. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         On August 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 29, 2014. After a hearing, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from April 29, 2014, through May 8, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 13-28.[2] Because the Commissioner's decision is not based on proper legal standards and not supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         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

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

         Born in 1965, Plaintiff was 48 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 51 years old on the date of her hearing. Tr. 168. She earned a high school equivalence degree and attended college for two years. Tr. 44. Plaintiff worked as a nursing assistant and hospital admitting clerk. Tr. 57-58. She alleged disability due to limited range of motion, weakness, pain, and neuropathy in the right hand and arm; back pain with muscle spasms; depression; hypertension; insomnia; diabetes; and “stomach problems.” Tr. 188.

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: history of right elbow epicondylitis status post-surgery; right shoulder injury status post-surgeries; mild bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), status post-release on the right; cervical degenerative disc disease; left elbow epicondylitis; and fibromyalgia. Tr. 15. The ALJ resolved that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work, except Plaintiff could only occasionally crouch, stoop, crawl, and reach overhead with the right extremity; never kneel or climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; could not tolerate hazards such as machinery and unprotected heights; and required the freedom to change position every thirty minutes while remaining on task. Tr. 19-20. The ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her past work as a hospital admitting clerk, as well as other jobs in the national economy, such as photocopy machine operator, office helper, and electronics assembler. Tr. 26-28. Therefore, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by rejecting multiple medical opinions, failing to properly consider Plaintiff's headaches and mental health impairments, and finding Plaintiff capable of performing her past relevant work as a hospital admitting clerk. I address each argument in turn.

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ erred by rejecting functional limitations assessed by consultative reviewing physicians, Drs. Pritchard and Berner. Consultative physicians are “experts in the Social Security disability programs, ” and an ALJ is required to “consider their findings of fact about the nature and severity of an individual's impairment(s).” SSR 96-6p, available at 1996 WL 374180, at *2. Although an ALJ is not bound by the findings made by consultative physicians, an ALJ “may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to the opinions.” Id. Thus, an ALJ “may reject the opinion of a non-examining physician by reference to specific evidence in the medical record.” Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1244 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         Here, the ALJ gave only partial weight to the consultative physicians' opinions. Specifically, the ALJ rejected the doctors' assessment that, due to Plaintiff's CTS and right-shoulder rotator cuff tear, Plaintiff could lift a maximum of ten pounds and could only occasionally push, pull, use hand controls, or reach in front with the right arm. Tr. 79-80, 99-101. The ALJ found those limitations inconsistent with evidence demonstrating Plaintiff's symptoms improved with treatment, as well as Plaintiff's ability to drive a car, mow the lawn, and serve as a caretaker for her ailing parents. The ALJ gave sufficiently specific reasons that were supported by substantial evidence to reject the consultative doctors' assessed limitations. For example, the ALJ reasonably found Plaintiff's lack of complaints concerning CTS in her right hand after undergoing CTS-release surgery indicated the surgery was successful. Tr. 21-22. Moreover, the doctors' assessed limitations concerning Plaintiff's right arm is inconsistent with Plaintiff's ability to operate a lawn mower, tr. 767, which requires considerable pushing, pulling, and reaching to the front. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in giving partial weight to the consultative physicians' opinions.

         Next, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by rejecting portions of examining physician, Dr. Weller's opinion. “To reject [the] uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). If, however, the opinion is contradicted by that of another doctor, then the ALJ need only provide “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citation omitted). An ALJ may satisfy the “substantial evidence” requirement by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. ...


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