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Angela B. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

November 19, 2019

ANGELA B.,[1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Angela B. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) 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”). (Docket No. 1). This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 9). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decisions is AFFIRMED and this case is DISMISSED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on July 18, 2013, alleging an amended disability onset date of May 14, 2013. Tr. 15, 200-07; see also Tr. 60.[2] Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 104-05, 130-31. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on July 26, 2016. Tr. 37-79, 152- 53. On August 19, 2016, an ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 15-26. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on August 18, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-8. This appeal followed.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Born in 1978, plaintiff was thirty-four years old on her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 25, 80. She completed the tenth grade and has past relevant work experience as a cashier/checker. Tr. 25, 44, 222. She alleged disability based on degenerative disk disease, back injury, arthritis of the back, and migraine headaches. Tr. 48-50, 221. Plaintiff lives with her significant other and two sons. Tr. 58, 242.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted).

         The initial burden of proof rests on the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At the fourth step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform “past relevant work.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease; headaches; chronic pain syndrome; and obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 20. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work, but with several nonexertional limitations. Id. She could frequently stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, climb stairs and ramps; and work in moderate noisy environments. Id. She could not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; not work in environments with extreme heat, cold, wetness, or humidity; not be exposed to concentrated airborne irritants and hazards; and not drive commercially. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a cashier/checker. Tr. 25. In the alternative, the ALJ made a step five finding that based on the RFC and VE testimony, a significant number of jobs existed such that plaintiff could sustain employment despite her impairments. Id. Specifically, the ALJ found plaintiff could perform the jobs of photocopy machine operator, linen room attendant, and office helper. Tr. 26. The ALJ thus found plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting her subjective symptom testimony; and (2) improperly weighing the medical opinion evidence. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         I. Subjective Symptom Testimony

         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) (citation omitted). A general assertion that the claimant is not credible is insufficient; 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 ...


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