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Ginny L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Pendleton Division

March 30, 2019

Ginny L., [1] Plaintiff,


          Ann Aiken United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Ginny L. 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 application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         On July 24, 2013, plaintiff filed for DIB with a date last insured of December 31, 2017. On December 23, 2013, plaintiff filed an application for SSL In her applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning on July 3, 2012 due to a combination of physical and mental impairments, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and spinal stenosis.

         Her claims were denied initially on March 5, 2014 and upon reconsideration on August 1, 2014. On August, 122014, plaintiff filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). An administrative hearing was held on May 31, 2016, where plaintiff was represented by counsel. Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") offered testimony. The ALJ found plaintiff not disabled in a written decision issued on January 30, 2017. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed the present complaint in this Court.


         The district court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence." Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006)). Harmless legal errors are not grounds for reversal. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). "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 internal quotation marks omitted). The court must evaluate the complete record and 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 inteipretation 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." Edhind v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir, 2001).


         The initial burden of proof rests upon the plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden. The 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 that plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged onset date of July 3, 2012. Tr. 19. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of "fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder." Tr. 19. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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. 20. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); id. §§ 416.920(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) except she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can perform simple routine tasks, in a routine work environment with only superficial interaction with coworkers and the public.

Tr. 23. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was "capable of performing past relevant work as a cashier IF' and thus was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 32 As an alternative finding, the ALJ proceeded to step five and determined plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy such as cleaner (DOT# 323.687-014), assembler (DOT# 706.687-010), packing-line worker (DOT #753.687-038). Tr. 34. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and denied her application for benefits. Id.


         Plaintiff raises five assignments of error on appeal. She contends that the Commissioner erred in: (1) failing to properly credit certain medical opinion evidence; (2) improperly rejecting some of plaintiff s impairments as non-severe at step two, (3) improperly evaluating lay witness statements, (3) improperly evaluating plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony, and (5) failing to conduct adequate analysis and Steps Four and Five. The Court addresses each issue in turn.

         I. Medical Opinion Testimony

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of (1) Rodrigo Lim, MD, plaintiffs treating physician, (2) examining physician Kenneth Dudley, Ph.D, (3) State Disability Determination Services ("DDS") consultants Richard Alley, ...

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