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Samantha H. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 30, 2019

SAMANTHA H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MIcHAEL J. MCSHANE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         On January 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for benefits, alleging disability as of January 1, 1995.[2] Tr. 194-98.[3] After a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from January 1, 1995 through October 4, 2013. Tr. 21-22. Plaintiff appealed and the District Court remanded the matter for further proceedings. On remand, Plaintiff attended a second hearing before the ALJ on November 10, 2016. The ALJ then issued another opinion finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act through January 5, 2017. Tr. 878.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the opinions of an examining psychologist and a treating mental health therapist. Because the Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         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, we 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 & 416.920 (2012). 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). 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).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, but with the following relevant non-exertional limitations: that she is limited to jobs that involve simple, repetitive tasks, and she is limited to only occasional public contact and can do no work as part of a team. Tr. 870. In formulating Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff was less-than fully credible as to the extent of her limitations. Plaintiff does not challenge that finding. Additionally, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of examining psychologist Dr. Gary Sachs, Ph.D., and Karen Van Acken, MA, MHQP, Plaintiff's mental health therapist. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in discounting the above opinions.

         Where there exists conflicting medical evidence, the ALJ is charged with determining credibility and resolving any conflicts. Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012). When a treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another medical opinion, the ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating physician only by providing “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007). Generally, a treating doctor's opinion is entitled to more weight than an examining doctor's opinion, which in turn is entitled to more weight than a reviewing doctor's opinion. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014).

         Dr. Sachs examined Plaintiff on July 12, 2013. Tr. 844-851. Dr. Sachs initially noted that he obtained information from Plaintiff “without corroboration, and opinions formed as a result of this consultation should be viewed in that light.” Tr. 845.[4] During the examination, Plaintiff maintained good eye contact, but was tearful when recalling childhood sexual abuse. Tr. 845. “She was able to follow the examiner throughout the clinical interview. Insight and judgment appeared somewhat limited. She complained about ‘voices' in her head, but on careful questioning, denied hearing disembodied voices.” Tr. 845. Plaintiff complained of physical symptoms in times of stress, including suffering from nausea and regurgitation. Tr. 845. Plaintiff complained of blackouts ever since a 2003 accident. Tr. 846. Plaintiff had an anxious affect and her mood appeared dysthymic. She described symptoms of PTSD. Tr. 845.

         Dr. Sachs completed a mental medical source statement. Tr. 849-851. As relevant here, Dr. Sachs opined that Plaintiff had slight limitations in understanding and carrying out simple instructions and mild restrictions with the ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions. Tr. 849. Plaintiff had moderate restrictions on interacting appropriately with the public, supervisors, and co-workers. Tr. 850. Plaintiff had marked restrictions (i.e., serious limitations) in responding appropriately to usual work situations and changes in a routine work setting. Tr. 850.

         The ALJ gave limited weight to Dr. Sachs's opinion. Tr. 875. Specifically, the ALJ noted that while Dr. Sachs believed Plaintiff had some marked limitations:

his assessment does not preclude simple, routine tasks, which do not involve great stress or decision-making. Evidence does not establish an inability to respond appropriately to usual work situations and changes provided she is in a simple, routine work environment. She has repeatedly worked when she needs to. Treatment records reflect her symptoms have improved when working because she likes feeling productive. She describes being good at her summer pool attendant job, indicating that she trains other people. The moderate limitations in interacting [with] the public, coworkers and supervisors have been considered. Evidence supports a finding that the claimant is limited to occasional contact with the public and should do no work as apart of a team. However, I do not find evidence to support additional restrictions in interactions with the public or coworkers or any limitations in supervisor contact. The claimant describes, “I'm ...

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