United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division
JENNIFER L. HUFT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.
Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.
Jennifer Huft brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) seeking judicial review of a decision by the
Commissioner of Social Security terminating her disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act
(the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401et seq.
applied for disability insurance benefits in March 2004,
alleging disability since February 2003 due to an organic
mental disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her
claim was approved in January 2005, and she was awarded
benefits dating back to the alleged onset date.
2013, the Social Security Administration conducted a
continuing disability review and determined that Huft's
medical condition had significantly improved, such that she
was no longer disabled as of April 16, 2012. Huft appealed
the cessation of her benefits, and requested an
administrative hearing before an ALJ. After a hearing, the
ALJ issued a decision finding that Huft's condition had
improved and she was able to work. The ALJ concluded that
Huft's disability ended as of April 16, 2012, and her
benefits had been properly terminated. The Appeals Council
later denied Huft's request for review, rendering the
ALJ's decision the agency's final decision for
purposes of judicial review.
was 26 years old when she began receiving benefits in
February 2003, and 35 years old when her benefits were
terminated in April 2012. She was 37 years old at the time of
the ALJ's 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
as here, a claimant has received a favorable disability
determination, the Commissioner can terminate benefits only
if substantial evidence demonstrates medical improvement such
that the claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful
activity. 42 U.S.C. 423(f); 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b);
Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 500 (9th
Cir. 1983). The applicable regulations define medical
improvement as “any decrease in the medical severity of
your impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most
recent favorable medical decision that you were disabled or
continued to be disabled.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.994(b)(1)(I). “A determination that there has been
a decrease in medical severity must be based on changes
(improvement) in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory
findings associated with your impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R.
to determine whether Huft''s disability had ceased,
the ALJ was required to compare the current medical severity
of her impairments to the severity of those impairments at
the last time the Commissioner found her disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1594(c)(3)(v). The most recent favorable medical
decision, also known as the “comparison point decision,
” in this case was the disability determination dated
January 13, 2005. (Doc. 7-2, at 14). To find that a
claimant's disability does not continue through the date
of the decision, the ALJ must establish that the claimant has
experienced medical improvement that would allow her to
engage in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1594(a); Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 500
(9th Cir. 1983).
determining whether medical improvement has occurred, the ALJ
follows an additional eight-step process. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1594. Medical improvement is “any decrease in the
medical severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) which
was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical
decision that [the claimant] was disabled or continued to be
disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1). “Once
a claimant has been found to be disabled, ...a presumption of
continuing disability arises in [the claimant's] favor
and the Commissioner “bears the burden of producing
evidence sufficient to rebut the presumption of continuing
disability” and establishing medical improvement.
Bellamy v. Sec'y of Health & Human Services,
775 F.2d 380, 1381 (9th Cir. 1085).
to the sequential evaluation process applicable in disability
termination cases, the ALJ first found that Huft had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity through April 16,
2012, the date her disability ended. (Doc. 7-2, at 14); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1). He then determined at step two
that Huft suffered from PTSD, cognitive disorder not
otherwise specified, migraine headache disorder, and status
post right wrist/shoulder fracture, but that those
impairments did not meet or equal the severity of any
impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. (Doc.
7-2, at 14); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(2). At step three,
the ALJ found that medical improvement had occurred as of
April 16, 2012. (Doc. 7-2, at 17); C.F.R. §
404.1594(f)(3). The ALJ next found that Huft had the residual
functional capacity to perform a restricted range of light
work as of April 16, 2012, and consequently concluded at step
four that her medical improvement was related to her ability
to work. (Doc. 7-2, at 17-26); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1594(f)(4). The ALJ ultimately concluded that although
Huft could not perform past relevant work, she was not
disabled after April 16, 2012, because there were other jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
she could perform, including unskilled light level work as an
office helper, business mail clerk, or light packager. (Doc.
7-2, at 26-28); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(7), (8).
challenges the ALJ's determination that she was not
disabled after April 16, 2012 on several grounds. She argues
the ALJ (1) erred by finding her disability ended in April
2012 due to medical improvement; (2) did not give proper
weight to the opinion of treating psychologist Dr. Nancy
Errebo; (3) did not provide germane reasons for discounting
the opinion of nurse practitioner Beth McGee; (4) failed to
set forth clear and convincing reasons for finding her only
partially credible; (5) failed to fully and fairly develop
the record by calling a medical expert; and (6) did not give
germane reasons for discounting lay witness testimony.