United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division
JUDITH A. KURIEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.
Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.
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).
was 43years old at the time of her amended onset date, and 46
years old at the time of the ALJ's second decision.
Standard of Review
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).
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).
Burden of Proof
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)).
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. §
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
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.
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). ...