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Shasta N. F. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 6, 2019

SHASTA N. F., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Jolie A. Russo United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Shasta F. brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title XVI Social Security Income. All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this case is dismissed.

         BACKGROUND

         Born in 1992, plaintiff alleges disability beginning October 1, 1995, due to seizures, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and foot problems. Tr. 167, 182. On May 30, 2017, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), wherein plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”) and medical expert (“ME”). Tr. 31-61. On July 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 13-23. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-6.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one of the five step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the January 27, 2015, application date. Tr. 15. At step two, the ALJ determined the following impairments were medically determinable and severe: “depressive disorder not otherwise specified; learning disorders of written expression, reading and math; and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 16.

         Because plaintiff did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: “[She] can understand, remember, and apply information to complete tasks that require a GED reasoning level of 2 or less that do not require reading, writing, or math above a fifth grade level in a setting with no public contact, no teamwork assignments, and no exposure to hazards.” Tr. 17.

         At step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr. 22. At step five, the ALJ concluded, based on the VE's testimony, that plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy despite her impairments, such as motel cleaner, price marker, and laundry folder. Tr. 22-23.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) discrediting her subjective symptom testimony; (2) rejecting the medical opinions of Wayne Taubenfeld, Ph.D., and Dorothy Anderson, Ph.D.; and (3) failing to account for all her limitations in the RFC, thereby rendering an invalid step five finding.

         I. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by discrediting her subjective symptom testimony concerning the severity of her mental impairments.[2] Pl.'s Opening Br. 10-13 (doc. 16). When a claimant has medically documented impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the symptoms complained of, and the record contains no affirmative evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of . . . symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). A general assertion the claimant is not credible is insufficient; the ALJ must “state which . . . testimony is not credible and what evidence suggests the complaints are not credible.” Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). The reasons proffered must be “sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony.” Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal citation omitted).

         Thus, in formulating the RFC, the ALJ is not tasked with “examining an individual's character” or propensity for truthfulness, and instead assesses whether the claimant's subjective symptom statements are consistent with the record as a whole. SSR 16-3p, available at 2016 WL 1119029. If the ALJ's finding regarding the claimant's subjective symptom testimony is “supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the court] may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted).

         At the hearing, plaintiff testified she was unable to work because “I can't remember a lot of things and I can't be on my feet to long.” Tr. 49. She also testified that her learning disability made reading and math “more difficult.” Id. When asked what type of things she was unable to remember, plaintiff responded: “Certain words, how to spell them” and “the names of common items.” Id. In regard to the latter, plaintiff explained “everything blacks out sometimes . . . I don't remember what happened 20 minutes earlier.” Tr. 49-50, 53. She testified to experiencing five such episodes in approximately the last six months. Tr. 31, 53. Plaintiff linked her recall problems and headaches to an October 2015 car accident; the headaches began immediately but the memory problems did not emerge until more than one year later. Tr. 51-54. When her headaches are severe, plaintiff stated she is unable to concentrate and needs assistance with her two young children[3] from her live-in brother-in-law or husband. Tr. 54-55.

         After summarizing her hearing testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of symptoms, but her “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.” Tr. 18-20. Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff's daily activities and failure to ...


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