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Kalawati C. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

September 5, 2019

KALAWATI C.[1], Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Kalawati C. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner's”) decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court should affirm the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on October 6, 2014, and an application for Disabled Widow's Benefits on December 10, 2014. Tr. 47. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning August 31, 2014 (“AOD”). Id. Her applications were both denied, and Plaintiff timely requested and appeared for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Michaelsen on November 16, 2016. Id.; Tr. 67-79. Plaintiff testified through a Hindi interpreter. Tr. 47, 67. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications in a written decision dated December 16, 2016. Tr. 47-59. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-4. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the decision.


         A 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, a court reviews the administrative record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).


         The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. Id. If the claimant satisfies her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the commissioner at step five. Id.; see also Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995). 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & 416.920(a)(4)(v). 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. Id.; see also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date of August 31, 2014. Tr. 50. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bilateral epicondylitis, adhesive capsulitis, and degenerative joint disease of the shoulders. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listings”). Tr. 52.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following exceptions: “She can no more than frequently bilaterally reach in all directions. She also can no more than frequently push or pull no more than 20 pounds.” Tr. 53.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a housekeeper, which does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 59.

         The issues before the Court are (1) whether the ALJ's discrediting of Plaintiff's subjective complaints is supported by substantial evidence and (2) whether the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinions of consultative examining physician Dr. Engelhardt and primary physician Dr. Sprague. Pl.'s Br. 6, 16-17 (ECF No. 19); Def.'s Br. 1 (ECF No. 26).

         I. Subjective Complaints

         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 [that] the claimant is not credible is insufficient; instead, 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). 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).

         Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p[2] provides that “subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character, ” and requires the ALJ to consider all of the evidence in an individual's record when evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms. SSR 16-3p, available at 2016 WL 1119029 at *1-2. The ALJ must examine “the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.” Id. at *4.

         Here, the ALJ found severe impairments of bilateral epicondylitis, adhesive capsulitis and degenerative joint disease of the shoulders. Tr. 50. Although Plaintiff also complained of joint pain generally and pain in her back, hands, elbows, wrists, knees, neck, shoulders, thighs, soles and shins at various times, the ALJ found that there are no diagnoses for the musculoskeletal complaints other than the severe impairments of bilateral epicondylitis, adhesive capsulitis and degenerative joint disease of the shoulders. Tr. 50, 336, 348, 372, 380, 399, 449, 433, 452, 509.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms.” Tr. 50, 53. He cited the MRI scans of Plaintiff's left and right shoulders. Tr. 54. The MRI scan of Plaintiff's left shoulder shows “[d]egenerative changes acromioclavicular joint with associated findings of edema/fluid involving the joint and adjacent soft tissues[, ]” and “[l]ocalized signal changes of tendinosis and possible non retracted tear involving the supraspinatus tendon near its humeral insertion.” Tr. 407. The MRI scan of Plaintiff's right shoulder shows “[d]egenerative changes acromioclavicular joint and inferior spurring of the acromium which could be associated with some element of chronic impingement[, ]” “probably tendinosis and possible partial tear involving the supraspinatus tendon[, ]” and “[m]ild shoulder joint effusion and evidence of some fluid within the subdeltoid bursa.” Tr. 408-09.

         However, the ALJ discredited Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of Plaintiff's shoulder symptoms because: (1) Plaintiff was inconsistent in reporting the history and location of her pain complaints, Id.; (2) there are significant inconsistencies between Plaintiff's subjective complaints and the minimal objective medical findings including little and conservative treatment, Tr. 53-54; (3) there are inconsistencies as to the reason why Plaintiff stopped working, Tr. 56; and (4) ...

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