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Tammy V. v. Comissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

June 28, 2019

TAMMY V., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. McShane United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Tammy V., brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). On September 18, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff now contends that the Administrative Law Judge erred in (1) discounting her subjective symptom testimony with respect to both her lower back and psychological impairments, and (2) assigning little weight to the opinion of examining psychologist William Trueblood, Ph.D. Because the Commissioner of Social Security's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, it is AFFIRMED.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A reviewing court shall affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) if her 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 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, the district court must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).

         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. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If the claimant satisfies her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate 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.

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. She first determined that Plaintiff remained insured for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) until September 30, 2019. Tr. 15.[2] Next, at step one of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2014, the alleged onset date of disability. Tr. 15. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: morbid obesity; hypertension; mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine; persistent depressive disorder; social anxiety disorder; rule out borderline intellectual functioning versus mild intellectual disability; and rule out diagnoses of paranoid personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Tr. 15.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 16. Before moving to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a), except that Plaintiff: can occasionally climb; can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, pulmonary irritants, and workplace hazards. Tr. 19. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was limited to simple, routine, repetitive work tasks involving no more than occasional contact with co-workers or the general public. Tr. 19.

         At step four, relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a cleaner/housekeeper, packager, or punch press operator. Tr. 21. Finally, at step five, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including escort vehicle driver and assembler of small products. Tr. 22. Having made this determination, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and did not qualify for benefits.

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's non-disability determination on two grounds. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence for discrediting her symptom testimony. Pl.'s Br. 3-4. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of examining psychologist William Trueblood, Ph.D. Pl.'s Br. 7. The Court addresses each objection in turn.[3]

         I. Subjective Symptom Testimony.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting her symptom testimony. An ALJ may only reject testimony regarding the severity of a claimant's symptoms if she offers “clear and convincing reasons” supported by “substantial evidence in the record.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002). The ALJ, however, is not “required to believe every allegation of disabling pain, or else disability benefits would be available for the asking, a result plainly contrary to 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A).” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). In assessing credibility, the ALJ “may consider a range of factors.” Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 11554, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014). These factors include “ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, ” as well as a plaintiff's daily activities, objective medical evidence, treatment history, and inconsistencies in testimony. Id. An ALJ may also consider the effectiveness of a course of treatment and any failure to seek further treatment. Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 254 (9th Cir. 1996); Molina, 674 F.3d at 1113.

         Plaintiff testified in relevant part that she is unable to sustain fulltime employment because of lower back pain and difficulties controlling her emotions due to depression and anxiety. Tr. 19, 46-49, 163, 169. The ALJ, in considering Plaintiff's testimony about pain and discomfort in her lower back, concluded that Plaintiff's “inability to work without some pain and discomfort . . . does not necessarily satisfy the test for disability under the provisions of the [Social Security] Act.” Tr. 20. The ALJ correctly noted inconsistencies between the medical evidence of record and the level of severe and debilitating pain described by Plaintiff. See tr. 20, 223, 257, 333, 356, 358. Despite these inconsistencies, and because Plaintiff had no treatment records for the prior year, the ALJ nevertheless referred Plaintiff for separate physical and psychological exams to gain “an idea of [her] functioning.” Tr. 20. As the ALJ noted, however, the doctor conducting Plaintiff's physical exam “concluded that [her] back pain would not reasonably stop her from working, and that her history of subjective complaints was ‘suggestive of symptom amplification.'” Tr. 21. The ALJ also concluded that the doctor's “findings suggest [Plaintiff] retains significant physical functioning” and noted in particular that Plaintiff had recently traveled cross-country to care for her father. Tr. 21. Although the evidence may be susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is not this Court's place to substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ where, as here, she has offered valid reasons supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008) (finding that long-distance travel to care for an ailing family member is a clear and convincing reason to discount symptom testimony about back pain).

         The ALJ likewise found Plaintiff's testimony regarding the intensity of her anxiety and depression to be inconsistent with the medical evidence of record. Just prior to submission of the present claim, “[Plaintiff's] treatment provider observed that [she] presented as fully oriented, with ‘normal' mood, affect, behavior, judgment, and thought content . . . [and] exhibited no apparent distress.” Tr. 20. Similarly, at a follow-up appointment in October 2014, the same provider noted that Plaintiff reported an “improvement in her mood” and that her “depression and anxiety appear[] to be remitted.” Tr. 324-25. Plaintiff also sought counseling through the Health Services Department of Deschutes County in August 2014, and by the time she completed the program in October 2015, she had “decreased her Beck depression score from a 19 to a 9, . . . report[ed] improvement on her self esteem, . . . [and planned to] move towards volunteer work with the senior center.” Tr. 394-95. Finally, the ALJ relied upon the opinions of the reviewing medical and psychological consultants, who concluded that there was no objective medical evidence to substantiate Plaintiff's claims about “the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of [her] ...


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