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Mergenthaler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

November 9, 2017

GREGORY J. MERGENTHALER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Gregory Mergenthaler 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, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Mergenthaler alleges disability since May 7, 2009. Mergenthaler's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and he requested an administrative hearing. On December 23, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding Mergenthaler not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Mergenthaler's 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).

         Mergenthaler was 44 years old at the time of his alleged onset date, and 50 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 Mergenthaler last met the insured status requirements of the Act on September 30, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Mergenthaler had the following severe impairments: tachycardia with syncope, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). The ALJ concluded at step three that Mergenthaler 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 Mergenthaler's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, his statements regarding the severity of those symptoms were not entirely credible. The ALJ concluded that Mergenthaler had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of medium work. Based on that residual functional capacity assessment, the ALJ found at step four that Mergenthaler could perform past relevant work as a bulk fuel dispatcher. Alternatively, the ALJ found at step five that Mergenthaler was not disabled because there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he was capable of performing, including light work as a general office clerk or shipping order clerk, and medium work as a hand packager. (Doc. 6, at 23-35).

         A. Medical Opinions

         Mergenthaler first contends the ALJ erred by not giving more weight to the opinion of his treating psychologist, Dr. Julie Hergenrather. The weight given a treating physician's opinion depends on whether it is supported by sufficient medical data and is consistent with other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). An ALJ may reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating physician only for clear and convincing reasons. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). To discount the controverted opinion of a ...


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