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Wellington v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 31, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


RONALD E. BUSH, Magistrate Judge.

Pending before the Court is Petitioner Dameon Wellington's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny him disability benefits. This 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.


Petitioner Dameon Wellington ("Claimant" or "Petitioner") received Social Security Disability benefits pursuant to a claim granted on March 14, 2003. AR 217. He remained on benefits until his incarceration in 2005.

After he was released, he protectively filed for Supplemental Security Income benefits on February 12, 2007. AR 216. Petitioner alleged he became disabled in June 2001 due to back pain, bowel issues, and a learning disability. AR 43, 221. His claim was denied initially on May 16, 2007 and, again on reconsideration, on October 17, 2007. AR 12.

Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ALJ Michael Kilroy held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, on May 12, 2009. AR 12. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 19, 2009. AR 9-21. On December 14, 2009, Petitioner requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision. AR 8. On November 17, 2010, the Appeals Council denied that request for review. AR 1-4.

Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed a petition for review with this Court. The parties filed a motion asking the Court to remand the case to the Commissioner for further action by the Commissioner and to retain jurisdiction over the action pending further administrative development of the record. See Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 101 n.2 (1991); Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 297 n.2 (1993). On April 15, 2011, this Court issued an order of remand.

ALJ Michael Kilroy presided over a second hearing on May 1, 2012, at which Petitioner, represented by attorney Jacob Bernhardt, appeared and testified. AR 662. Also testifying were James Bruce, a medical expert, and Karen Black, an impartial vocational expert. Id. On August 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a second decision, again denying Petitioner's claims and finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 662-72.

At the time of his first hearing before the ALJ, Petitioner was 33 years old; he was 36 years old at second hearing. He had work experience as a cabinet maker, car rental clerk, cashier, and general carpenter. AR 670.

On October 17, 2012, Petitioner moved to have this case reopened for review. Dkt. 14. The Court reopened the case on November 19, 2012. The updated administrative record was filed in March of 2013 and updated briefing followed. Petitioner argues the ALJ erred by (1) failing to give proper weight to an opinion provided by Michael Eastman, a physician's assistant assisting in Petitioner's medical care, (2) to support his credibility determination, and (3) to properly consider the impact of Petitioner's gastritis and recurrent abdominal pain in formulating the residual functional capacity. (Dkt. 28).


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). In other words, 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); Flaten 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, 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. Flaten, 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).


A. Sequential Process

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. §§ ...

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