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Kurien v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

January 4, 2017

JUDITH A. KURIEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.


          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Judith Kurien 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 Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Kurien protectively filed her application in July 2011, and alleges disability since June 1, 2011 due to “back - compressed discs, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, migraines, headeaches, and chronic pain.” (AR 392). Kurien's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested an administrative hearing. Kurien appeared with a non-attorney representative at her administrative hearing in April 2013, and an ALJ issued an unfavorable decision approximately two months later. (AR 138-89, 213-26). The Appeals Council granted Kurien's subsequent request for review, and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. (AR 231-36). Kurien appeared with the same non-attorney representative at her second administrative hearing on March 11, 2014. (AR 34-137). On April 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Kurien not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AR 8-28). The Appeals Council denied Kurien's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (AR 1-4). Jurisdiction vests with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Kurien was 43years old at the time of her amended onset date, and 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's second 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 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).

         III. Discussion

         The ALJ found at step one that Kurien meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended onset date. (AR13). At step two, the ALJ found that Kurien had the following severe impairments: chronic fatigue syndrome, degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, sleep apnea, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depressive disorder not otherwise specified, and generalized anxiety disorder. (AR 13). The ALJ concluded at step three that Kurien did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. (AR 14). The ALJ also found that while Kurien'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 entirely credible. (AR 18). The ALJ found that Kurien could perform a reduced range of light work, including work as a folder, stuffer, or shoe packer.

         A. Credibility

         Kurien contends the ALJ did not provide sufficiently clear and convincing reasons for discrediting her testimony. If the ALJ finds “the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged, ” and “there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Kurien met her initial burden because she provided evidence that she has underlying impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce pain and other symptomes, and the ALJ did not find that she was malingering. As set forth below, however, the ALJ then provided clear and convincing reasons for finding Kurien's subjective testimony only partially believable.

         Kurien testified that she has typically has headaches four times a week. She explained that she lies down until the headaches get better, but that the pain never goes away entirely. (AR 44). Kurien testified that she attends bible study twice a week unless she has a headache, and that she usually misses about three bible study classes each month. (AR 45-46). Kurien said she also attends church on Sundays unless her headaches interfere, and that she usually manages to get there twice a month. (AR 46). Kurien testified that she occasionally plays cards with friends (AR 46-47), but that when her medication is not working her depression is so severe that she usually does not go anywhere or do anything. (AR 56). Kurien explained that when her medication is not working, she spends her days on the couch and does not even get dressed or shower or brush her teeth. (AR 56). She testified that she started taking Latuda in September 2013, and said the medication was working and she was no longer as depressed. (AR 57). ...

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