United States District Court, District of Montana, Missoula Division
DARREL C. ARMSTRONG, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATION
Jeremiah C. Lynch, United States Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Darrel Armstrong brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, §§ 1381-1385. Armstrong alleges disability since March 31, 2006 due to depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a stress disorder, and seizures. (Tr. 20, 153-67, 213). Armstrong’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and he requested a hearing which took place on August 8, 2011. (Tr. 36-90; 95-100; 103-07). Armstrong appeared with counsel at his hearing, and on December 5, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Armstrong was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 20-29). The Appeals Council denied Armstrong’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).
Armstrong was 55 years old at the time of his alleged onset date, and 60 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 28, 153).
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).
The ALJ found at step one that Armstrong met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2009, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his March 31, 2006, alleged onset date. (Tr. 22). At step two, the ALJ found that Armstrong had the following severe impairments: depression, ADHD, and a probable personality disorder. (Tr. 22). The ALJ concluded at step three that Armstrong did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. (Tr. 23). The ALJ also found that while Armstrong’s “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects” of those symptoms were not entirely credible. (Tr. 26). The ALJ found that Armstrong could perform a range of medium work, and that there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, including work as a vehicle cleaner, industrial cleaner, cook helper, hand packager, and kitchen helper. (Tr. 28-29).
Armstrong argues the ALJ erred because she did not provide legally adequate reasons for discounting various medical opinions and for finding him not credible.
A. Medical Opinions
A treating physician's opinion is entitled to greater weight than that of an examining 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). An examining physician’s opinion in turn “carries more weight than a reviewing and 670 do not exist, as the record in this case contains only 472 pages. physician’s.” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001). The weight given a treating or examining physician’s opinion depends on ...