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Kelly B. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 1, 2019

KELLY B., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STACIE F. BECKERMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Kelly B. (“Plaintiff”) brings this appeal challenging the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner”) denial of her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction to hear Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons explained below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court may set aside a denial of benefits only if the Commissioner's findings are “‘not supported by substantial evidence or [are] based on legal error.'” Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence is defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla [of evidence] but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         The district court “cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision ‘simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). Instead, the district court must consider the entire record, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Id. Where the record as a whole can support either a grant or a denial of Social Security benefits, the district court “‘may not substitute [its] judgment for the [Commissioner's].'” Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222 (quoting Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007)).

         BACKGROUND

         I. PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATIONS

         Plaintiff was born in September 1966, making her fifty years old on October 6, 2016, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 24, 143-44, 172.) Plaintiff is a high school graduate and has completed one year of college. (Tr. 24, 356.) Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a credit union teller, cashier-checker, cashier supervisor, fast food worker, and delicatessen counter worker. (Tr. 104-05, 107, 110.) In her applications for Social Security benefits, Plaintiff alleges disability due to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and back pain. (Tr. 143-44, 172.)

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration, and on July 21, 2017, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 13.) Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing held on March 20, 2018. (Tr. 83-118.) On April 11, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (Tr. 13-26.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         II. THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS

         A claimant is considered disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant can return to any past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 724-25. The claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). If the claimant fails to meet the burden at any of those steps, the claimant is not disabled. Id.; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987).

         The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five of the sequential analysis, where the Commissioner must show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954 (citations omitted).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if Plaintiff is disabled. (Tr. 13-26.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity from July 1, 2017, through September 30, 2017, but had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2017 (about one year after the alleged disability onset date of October 6, 2016). (Tr. 16.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “[L]umbar degenerative disc disease; depression disorder; and anxiety disorder.” (Tr. 16.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment. (Tr. 17.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, subject to these limitations: (1) Plaintiff cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) Plaintiff can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; (3) Plaintiff can perform work involving simple, routine tasks; (4) Plaintiff cannot have contact with the general public; and (5) Plaintiff can have occasional contact with co-workers. (Tr. 19-20.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 24.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that she could perform, including work as a photocopy machine operator, production assembler, and mail sorter. (Tr. 25.)

         DISCUSSION

         In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony; and (2) failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's examining occupational therapist, Trevor Tash (“Tash”), and treating nurse practitioner, Tiffany McClean (“McClean”). As explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision is free of harmful legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PLAINTIFF'S SYMPTOM TESTIMONY

         A. ...


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