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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2016

SARAH S. JOHNSON, Petitioner,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Honorable Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before this Court is Petitioner Sarah S. Johnson's Petition for Review, seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her benefits under the Social Security Act. See generally Pet. for Review (Docket No. 1). 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:

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Sarah S. Johnson (“Petitioner”) filed her claims for supplemental security income (SSDI) and child disability benefits on February 28, 2012 and March 16, 2012, respectively - in both applications, Petitioner alleged disability beginning December 21, 1993. These claims were initially denied on June 20, 2012 and, again, on reconsideration on September 18, 2012. On November 8, 2012, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before and Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On August 14, 2013, ALJ John T. Molleur held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time, Petitioner (unrepresented at the time) appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Polly A. Peterson, also appeared and testified during the same August 14, 2013 hearing.

         On December 5, 2013, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claims, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on December 20, 2013, at that time, submitting new evidence which was accepted into the record. On March 4, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely files the instant action, alleging:

It is Petitioner's contention that the denial of her disability claim is not supported by substantial evidence under the standards set forth by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and all other applicable laws and regulations, including the weight of the evidence, her credibility, the medical opinions of her doctors, and any and all other applicable evidentiary issues, both in law and in fact . . . .

         Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner argues that (1) the ALJ's denial of benefits is not supported by substantial evidence in the record in light of the evidence submitted to the Appeals Council; (2) that evidence is new and material; and (3) the ALJ's unfocused conduct at the August 14, 2013 hearing was contrary to his obligation to assist an unrepresented claimant in the presentation of her claim. See Brief in Supp. of Pet. for Review, p. 3 (Docket No. 16). Petitioner therefore requests that the denial of her claim should be reversed or remanded for further administrative proceedings. See Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Docket No. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 (see 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 (see 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 (see 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 ...


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