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Heser v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

November 17, 2014

SHARON E. HESER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


SUSAN P. WATTERS, District Judge.

Sharon Heser ("Heser") filed this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security's ("the Commissioner") decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1). Heser moved for summary judgment on July 8, 2014. (Doc. 9). On September 8, 2014, Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby issued her Findings and Recommendations recommending that this Court grant Heser's motion, reverse the Commissioner's decision, and remand for payment of benefits. (Doc. 14). The Commissioner filed timely Objections to the Findings and Recommendations on September 15, 2014. (Doc. 15). The Commissioner is entitled to a de novo review of the findings and recommendations to which she objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).


Magistrate Judge Ostby thoroughly laid out the procedural history of this matter and a summary of the administrative record in her Findings and Recommendations. As this history is well-known to the parties, this Court adopts Magistrate Judge Ostby's description of the background facts, administrative record and procedural history. A short summary of relevant events is laid out below.

A. Procedural History

Heser filed applications for disability and supplemental social security income benefits under the Social Security Act in 2008. (AR 202, 307-21). Heser claims her conditions rendered her unable to work since August 14, 2002. ( Id. ) She amended this date to May 23, 2005. (Doc. 9 at 15). Heser claimed an inability to work due to several conditions, including cervical, thoracic, and lumbar back pain, fibromyalgia, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, plantar fasciits, sleep apnea, obesity, depression, and anxiety disorder. (AR 419-26).

Heser's request was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 221-26, 228-31). On September 1, 2010 an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing. (AR 34-123). On December 22, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Heser's claims. (AR 202-09). Heser sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (AR 261). On April 16, 2012, the Appeals Council granted Heser's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded Heser's request. The Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to, among other instructions, re-evaluate Heser's treating physicians' opinion evidence, evaluate her mental impairment and the effect of her obesity, and consider the credibility of non-medical source evidence. (AR 216-218).

On September 11, 2012, the ALJ held a second hearing on Heser's claims. (AR 124-94). On October 22, 2012, the All issued a second written decision denying Heser's claims. (AR 15-27). On January 24, 2014, after the Appeals Council denied Heser's request for review, the ALJ's decision became final for purposes of judicial review. (AR 3-5). 20 CFR §§ 404.981, 416.1481 (2013).

B. ALJ'S Written Decision

The ALJ found that Heser last met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2007. (AR 17). Heser did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged date of onset, May 23, 2005. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Heser had the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome; fibromyalgia; status-post discectomy and fusion at C5-6; status post-laminectomy at L5-S1; obesity; and plantar fasciitis. ( Id. ) He concluded that Heser did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met one of the listed impairments under the Act. (AR 18-19). Affording Heser's treating physicians' opinions "little weight, " the ALJ rejected the limitations they recommended and determined that Heser has a residual functional capacity to perform light work, with certain limitations. (AR 20). He concluded that her residual functional capacity allowed her to perform past relevant work as a billing clerk and an insurance agent. (AR 26). As a result, the ALJ found that Heser was not disabled from May 23, 2005, to the date of the decision. (AR 27).


A. Overview

To qualify for disability benefits under the SSA, an applicant is required to show two things. First, she must show that she suffers from a medically determinable impairment that can be expected to result in death, or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of twelve months or more. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, she must show that the impairment renders her incapable of performing the work that she previously performed, or any other substantially gainful employment that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2) (A).

Regulations promulgated pursuant to the SSA specify the process that the Social Security Administration uses to determine whether an applicant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step 1, the agency considers whether the claimant is presently working in any substantial gainful activity. If so, she is not disabled. If not, the agency considers whether the claimant's impairment is severe in Step 2. If not severe, she is not disabled. If the impairment is severe, the agency then considers in Step 3 whether the impairment meets or equals a specific impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments. If so, the applicant is disabled. If not, the agency considers at Step 4 whether the claimant is able to do any other work, including past work. If not, the claimant is disabled. If at Step 5 there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Ticket v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999). The burden at steps one through four rests on the applicant, but the burden at step five rests on the agency. Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1180 (9th Cir. 2003). Applicants who are not disqualified at step five are eligible for disability benefits. Id.

B. Standard of Review

An applicant may seek judicial review of a final agency decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). This Court's review is limited, however. A district court reviews de novo any part of a Magistrate Judge's Findings and Recommendation to which there has been proper objections. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). A final decision may only be disturbed if the ALJ's findings of fact are based on legal error or are not supported by "substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Schneider v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000). "Substantial evidence means 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." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. See Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. Where ...

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