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Jamie L. W. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

October 16, 2018

JAMIE L. W., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

          Jeremiah C. Lynch United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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 and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383. Plaintiff alleges disability since May 5, 2010. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested an administrative hearing. On April 19, 2017, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff'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).

         Plaintiff was 34 years old at the time of her alleged onset date and 41 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 and 416.920. 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 considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has any impairments that qualify as severe under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(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) and 416.920(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)(4)(iii) and 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments, however, 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) and 416.920(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) and 416.920(4)(v).

         III. Discussion

         The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2015. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bilateral shoulder derangement status-post surgical procedures and injections, degenerative disc disease of the spine, asthma, peripheral neuropathy, obesity, left ankle sprain with tarsal tunnel syndrome, and tibial tendonitis were severe impairments. The ALJ concluded at step three that Plaintiff 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 Plaintiff's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, her statements regarding the severity of those symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical and other evidence in the record. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff 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 Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work as a census data collector or a secretary. But considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as office helper, checker, or counter attendant. (Doc. 13 at 17-27.)

         Plaintiff 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, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ did not provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of her treating physicians. Second, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred at step two by finding that her carpal tunnel syndrome and migraines were not severe impairments and omitting related limitations from the residual functional capacity assessment. Third, Plaintiff contends the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting her subjective symptom testimony. Finally, Plaintiff argues the ALJ did not provide germane reasons for discounting several lay witness statements.

         A. Medical Opinions

         Where there are conflicting medical opinions in the record, “the ALJ is charged with determining credibility and resolving the conflict.” Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012). The weight given a treating or examining 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 or examining physician only for clear and convincing reasons. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). To discount a controverted opinion of a treating or examining physician, the ALJ must provide specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record." Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1160 (9th Cir. 2012); Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. The ALJ may accomplish this by setting forth "a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). The opinions provided ...


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