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Erickson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

January 30, 2018

BELINDA D. ERICKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATION

          JEREMIAH C. LYNCH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Belinda Erickson 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, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Erickson alleges disability since August 17, 2012, when she fell and injured herself while walking across a parking lot. Erickson's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested an administrative hearing. In November 27, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding Erickson not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Erickson'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).

         Erickson was 47 years old at the time of her 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 Erickson meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2019. The ALJ further found that although Erickson alleged a disability onset date of August 17, 2012, she would be ineligible for benefits until the start of 2014 because she had engaged in substantial gainful activity through the years 2012 and 2013. At step two, the ALJ found that Erickson's lumbar degenerative disc disease and obesity were severe impairments. The ALJ concluded at step three that Erickson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments. The ALJ further found that while Erickson's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, her statements regarding the severity of those symptoms were not entirely credible. The ALJ concluded that Erickson had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. Based on that residual functional capacity assessment, the ALJ found at step four that Erickson could perform past relevant work as a customer service representative and office clerk. Because Erickson could perform past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Doc. 4-2, at 20-32).

         Erickson argues the ALJ's finding that she has the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work is not supported by substantial evidence, and raises four issues on appeal. First, Erickson maintains the ALJ did not provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of her treating and examining physicians. Second, Erickson contends the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting her subjective testimony. Third, Erickson argues the ALJ did not provide germane reasons for discounting a lay witness statement provided by her husband. Finally, Erickson maintains the ALJ erred by finding her capable of performing past relevant work.

         A. ...


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