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Erica L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 26, 2019

ERICA L., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Erica L. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the reasons below, the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED.

         Plaintiff was 31 years old on her alleged onset date of September 29, 2010. Tr. 19, 76, 88.[2]She completed high school and some college coursework. Tr. 27, 44, 222. She alleged disability due to autism spectrum disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Tr. 221.

         Plaintiff filed her DIB and SSI applications on August 13, 2014. Tr. 198, 202. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 74–75. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and appeared for a hearing on October 14, 2016. Tr. 38–73, 150. In a written decision, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s applications on December 22, 2016. Tr. 19–33. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s subsequent request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision final. Tr. 1–6. This appeal followed.


         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 that which 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(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2012). The burden of proof rests upon the claimant at steps one through four, and with the Commissioner at step five. Id.; Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953–54 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). At step five, the Commissioner must 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. 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 can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Id.; see also Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953–54.

         The ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 29, 2010, the alleged onset date. Tr. 22. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, autism spectrum disorder, general anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the listings. Tr. 23; 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s RFC allowed her to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations:

[She] must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. She [was] limited to understanding and carrying out simple instructions. She [was] limited to no contact with the general public and no more than occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. Tr. 25. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work.

Tr. 31. At step five, the ALJ found that based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy such that Plaintiff could sustain substantial gainful employment despite her impairments. Tr. 31–32. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the occupations of routing clerk, electronics worker, and photocopying machine operator. Tr. 32. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 32–33.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons to reject her subjective symptom testimony; and (2) failing to properly weigh the lay opinion evidence.

         I. Subjective Symptom Testimony

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting her subjective 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, 763 F.3d at 1163. These factors include:

(1) whether the claimant engages in daily activities inconsistent with the alleged symptoms; (2) whether the claimant takes medication or undergoes other treatment for the symptoms; (3) whether the claimant fails to follow, without adequate explanation, a prescribed course of treatment; and ...

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