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Hill v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

June 21, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Katherine Hill 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. Hill alleges disability since May 18, 2013, due to multiple sclerosis, osteopenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and a cognitive disorder. Hill's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested an administrative hearing. In October 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding Hill not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Hill'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).

         Hill was 52 years old at the time of her alleged onset date and 55 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 to perform 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 Hill meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. The ALJ further found that Hill had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her May 18, 2013, alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Hill's multiple sclerosis and osteopenia were severe impairments. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Hill 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 Hill'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 determined that Hill had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work. The ALJ found that Hill was not disabled at step four because she could perform past relevant work as a medical receptionist and legal secretary. (Doc. 6-2, at 36-46).

         Hill argues the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by substantial evidence and raises three main issues on appeal.[1] First, she argues the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical opinion evidence and fully develop the record with regard to her mental impairments. Second, Hill contends the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinion evidence with respect to her physical impairments. Third, Hill maintains the ALJ erred at step four by finding that she could perform her past relevant work despite vocational expert testimony to the contrary.

         Hill first argues the ALJ failed to adequately account for her mental impairments when assessing her residual functional capacity. In particular, Hill contends the ALJ did not provide sufficiently specific and legitimate reasons for discounting a neuropsychological evaluation by examining psychologist William Patenaude, and failed to adequately develop the record. Dr. Patenaude examined Hill in June 2015, on a referral from her primary care provider who had been treating her for relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis and secondary memory loss (Doc. 6-7, at 458-66). Hill reported a history of cognitive increasing symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, difficulty with language, and the inability to multitask. Dr. Patenaude administered a battery of tests to evaluate Hill's cognitive and psychiatric status, the results of which were “consistent with a deterioration of cognitive functioning attributable to” multiple sclerosis. (Doc. 6-7, 465). Dr. Patenaude diagnosed Hill with a cognitive disorder, and indicated that she had “particular difficulty with more complex thinking processes as well as with working memory.” (Doc. 6-7, at 465). Dr. Patenaude stated that Hill would have significant difficulty engaging in competitive employment requiring complex thinking tasks, such as organizing and processing information. He indicated that Hill would also have difficulty managing information required for any job requiring ...

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