The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Ronald E. Bush U. S. Magistrate Judge
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
Now pending before the Court is Terry L. Bailey's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments. The action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Having carefully reviewed the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:
I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
On October 19, 2006, Terry L. Bailey ("Petitioner") applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. See Pet.'s Brief in Supp. of Pet. for Review, p. 1 (Docket No. 15). Petitioner's claim was initially denied on December 1, 2006 and, again, on reconsideration on June 7, 2007. See id. On October 29, 2007, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). See id. On February 5, 2009, ALJ Donald R. Jensen held a hearing in Idaho Falls, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Jay Barnes, appeared and testified. (AR 13). A vocational expert, Connie Hill, also appeared and testified during the same February 5, 2009 hearing. (AR 105-109).
On March 13, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision, denying Petitioner's claims, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 13-21). Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on March 31, 2009. (AR 4). On June 18, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's request for review (AR 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely files the instant action, arguing that the decisions of the ALJ and Appeals Council are not supported by substantial evidence, are incorrect, and are contrary to the law and regulations of the Social Security Act. See Pet. for Review, pp. 3-4 (Docket No. 1). Specifically, Petitioner asserts that the ALJ (1) failed to properly evaluate Petitioner's credibility; (2) failed to properly evaluate the opinions of Petitioner's treating physician; and (3) improperly rejected the lay testimony from Petitioner's mother, Carolyn Bailey. See Pet.'s Brief in Supp. of Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Docket No. 15). Petitioner requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and order the immediate payment of benefits or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings before a different ALJ. See id.; see also Pet. For Review, p. 4 (Docket No. 1).
To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Matney ex. rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990).
Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). That is, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual decisions, they must be upheld, even when there is conflicting evidence. Hall v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 602 F.2d 1372, 1374 (9th Cir. 1979).
"Substantial evidence" is defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993); Flatten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), and "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).
With respect to questions of fact, the role of the Court is to review the record as a whole to determine whether it contains evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving conflicts in medical testimony, Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984), resolving ambiguities, see Vincent ex. rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984), and drawing inferences logically flowing from the evidence, Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation in a disability proceeding, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Flatten, 44 F.3d at 1457; Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1549 (9th Cir. 1985).
With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. The ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act is entitled to deference if it has a reasonable basis in law. See id. However, reviewing federal courts "will not rubber-stamp an administrative decision that is inconsistent with the statutory mandate or that frustrates the congressional purpose underlying the statute." Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).
In evaluating the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in determining whether a person is disabled in general (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful. "Substantial work activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant has engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied, regardless of how severe his physical/mental impairments are and regardless of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step. Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 10, 2005, the alleged onset date. (AR 15).
The second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe and meets the duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" within the meaning of the Social Security Act if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is "not severe" when medical and other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner had the following severe impairment - degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (AR 15).
The third step requires the ALJ to determine the medical severity of any impairments; that is, whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the answer is yes, the claimant is considered disabled under the Social Security Act and benefits are awarded. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal one of the listed impairments, the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. Id. Here, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner does not have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that meets or medically equals a listed impairment (AR 16).
The fourth step of the evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's residual functional capacity is sufficient for the claimant to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). An individual's residual functional capacity is his ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. Likewise, an individual's past relevant work is work performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established; also, the work must have lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job and be engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. Here, the ALJ determined that Petitioner has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: (1) Petitioner can sit for 20 minutes at a time for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; (2) Petitioner can stand for 15 minutes at a time for a total of two hours in an eight-hour day; and (3) Petitioner must be permitted to sit or stand at will. (AR 17-20). In doing so, the ALJ further found that Petitioner is capable of performing past relevant work as a user support analyst because "[t]his work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by his residual functional capacity." (AR 20).
In the fifth and final step, if it has been established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of his/her impairments, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant retains the ability to do alternate work and to demonstrate that such alternate work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 681 (9th Cir. 1993). If the claimant is able to do other work, he is not disabled; if the claimant is not able to do other work and meets the duration requirement, he is disabled. Here, as discussed above, the ALJ determined that Petitioner could perform past relevant work as a user support analyst. (AR 20).
Petitioner challenges the ALJ's denial of disability benefits in three separate respects. First, Petitioner argues that the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing evidence for rejecting his own testimony. See Pet.'s Brief in Supp. of Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Docket No. 15). Second, Petitioner argues that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment failed to accurately incorporate Petitioner's treating physician's opinions. See id. Third, Petitioner argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the testimony of Petitioner's mother, Carolyn Bailey.
1. Petitioner's Credibility
Petitioner takes issue with the ALJ's challenge to his credibility, stating in no uncertain terms that "[t]he ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the credibility of [Petitioner's] testimony. See id. at p. 6. The ALJ is in the best position to make such credibility determinations and, for this reason, the ALJ's credibility determinations are entitled to great weight. See Anderson v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1121, 1124 (9th Cir. 1990). In evaluating a claimant's credibility, the ALJ may consider a claimant's reputation, inconsistencies either in testimony or between testimony and conduct, daily activities, past work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the alleged symptoms. See Light v. Social Security Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 791 (9th Cir. 1997). In short, "[c]redibility decisions are the province of the ALJ." Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 604 (9th Cir. 1989). At the same time, it should be noted that, to reject a claimant's testimony, the ALJ must make specific findings stating clear and convincing reasons for doing so. See Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1208 (9th Cir. 2001).
During the administrative hearing, Petitioner testified that he experiences "constant irritating pain" between his shoulder blades, sometimes radiating to his buttocks, legs, and feet. (AR 89-90). According to Petitioner, the pain is such that, around the time of his September 10, 2005 onset date, he had difficulty even getting out of bed in the morning. (AR 79) ("I quit [my job]. I could no longer -- days at a time I would not be able to get up out of bed and weeks at a time actually."). ...