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Lester v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

August 22, 2017

JASON N. LESTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Jeremiah C. Lynch, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Jason Lester brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Lester alleges disability since July 10, 2010. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and he requested a hearing which took place on July 9, 2014. Lester appeared with counsel at his hearing, and on November 6, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Lester was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Lester's subsequent request for review, making the ALJ's decision the agency's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Jurisdiction vests with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Lester was 42 years old at the time of his alleged onset date, and 47 years old at the time of the ALJ's 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 (RFC) 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 Lester met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date through his date last insured. At step two, the ALJ found that Lester had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post-multiple knee injuries with osteoarthritis, polyarthritis, status post-left shoulder injuries, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post release surgeries, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The ALJ concluded at step three that Lester did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. The ALJ also found that while Lester's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, his testimony as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms was not entirely credible. The ALJ found that Lester could perform a range of light work, and that there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform, including light work as a general office clerk or shipping order clerk, and sedentary work as information clerk.

         A. Credibility

         Lester argues the ALJ did not provide sufficiently clear and convincing reasons for discrediting his testimony. The Court agrees.

         “To determine whether a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007). At the first step, “the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.” Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Where, as here, the ALJ finds the claimant has met this evidentiary threshold 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, 504 F.3d at 1036. “General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 493 (9th Cir. 2015). The ALJ's findings “‘must be sufficiently specific to ...


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