United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division
CHERYL L. PORTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATION
JEREMIAH C. LYNCH, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Cheryl Porter brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Titles II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434.
Porter protectively applied for benefits in April 2008, alleging disability since July 2007, due to low back and neck pain, headaches, thoracic outlet, carpal tunnel, and blurred vision. (Tr. 48; 143-46; 174). Porter's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Porter requested a hearing. (Tr. 184-90). Porter appeared with counsel at her administrative hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge in August 2011. (Tr. 38-83). In September 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Porter's application for benefits and finding her not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 18-27). The Appeals Council denied Porter's subsequent request for review, making the ALJ's decision the agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 1-6.) Jurisdiction vests with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Porter was 53 years old on her alleged onset date, and 58 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision.
I. Standard of Review
This Court's review is limited. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's decision only where the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or where the decision is based on legal error. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006).
"The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). This Court must uphold the Commissioner's findings "if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "[I]f evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, " the Court "must defer to the Commissioner's decision." Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 ( citing Morgan v. Commissioner, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). This Court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Widmark, 454 F.3d at 1070 ( quoting Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1156).
II. Burden of Proof
To establish disability, a claimant bears "the burden of proving an inability 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.'" Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193-94 ( quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of establishing disability at steps one through four of this process. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). At the first step, the ALJ will consider whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I). If not, the ALJ must determine at step two whether the claimant has any impairments that qualify as "severe" under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the ALJ finds that the claimant does have one or more severe impairments, the ALJ will compare those impairments to the impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the ALJ finds at step three that the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(iii). If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments, then the ALJ must proceed to step four and consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant establishes an inability to engage in past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
Following the steps in the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ first found that Porter met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (Tr. 20). The ALJ found at step two that Porter had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, thoracic outlet syndrome, status post bilateral carpal tunnel release surgery, and headaches. (Tr. 20). At step three, the ALJ determined that Porter did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. (Tr. 20). The ALJ also found that while Porter's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, " her "statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of th[o]se symptoms [were] not credible to the extent they [were] inconsistent with [her] residual functional capacity assessment." (Tr. 23). The ALJ next determined that Porter retained the residual functional capacity to perform a range of limited range of light work, and could perform her past relevant work as a phone sales operator and title clerk. (Tr. 21, 26).
Porter argues the ALJ erred by discounting the opinions of her treating primary care physicians, Dr. Douglas Pittman and Dr. Scott Janke.
A treating physician's opinion is entitled to greater weight than that of an examining or reviewing physician on the basis that he has a "greater opportunity to observe and know the patient." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995). The weight given a treating physician's opinion depends on whether it is supported by sufficient ...