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Huft v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

June 8, 2017

JENNIFER L. HUFT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration Defendant.

          ORDER

          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Procedural Background

         Huft 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.

         In May 2013, the Social Security Administration conducted a continuing disability review[1] 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.

         Huft 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.

         II. 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).

         III. Burden of Proof

         Where, 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. § 404.1594(b)(1).

         Accordingly, 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).

         In 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).

         IV. ALJ's Findings

         Adhering 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).

         V. Discussion

         Huft 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.

         A. ...


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