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Thies v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


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

         Now pending before the Court is Petitioner Krystle Thies's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), filed July 12, 2015, seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her 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 applied for SSDI benefits on June 6, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 15, 2013. This claim was initially denied on September 4, 2013, and upon reconsideration January 2, 2014. Thereafter, Petitioner requested a hearing before an ALJ, which occurred on January 26, 2015. (AR 8). ALJ Luke Brennan presided over the hearing, at which the Petitioner was present and represented by her attorney, Michael Whipple. An impartial vocational expert, Polly Peterson, testified at the hearing, as did Petitioner herself. (AR 8). At or just before the hearing, on the advice of her attorney, Petitioner requested that her alleged onset date be amended to September 1, 2013. (AR 233, Petitioner's Brief at p. 15). At the time of the hearing, Petitioner was 27 years old, and had past work experience as a photo parts cashier/delivery person, as an adult care-giver, as an auto parts cashier/delivery driver, and as a home health aide. (AR 20).

         On February 24, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, denying Petitioner's claims and finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 5-19). Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on February 25, 2014. (AR 25-26.) The Appeals Council then denied review on August 26, 2014. (AR 1-4), rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. She contends that the ALJ erred in three ways: 1) by improperly evaluating the opinions of her treating doctor; 2) by failing to consider the side-effects of Petitioner's medication in assessing her residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and 3) by improperly finding that she was not credible as to the claim that her back pain had worsened around the time of the amended alleged disability onset date. (Petitioner's Brief, Dtk. 13, p. 2).

         Though the circumstances are such that there remains doubt as to whether Petitioner is actually disabled, the Court nonetheless concludes that the ALJ's adverse credibility determination was based on an erroneous reading of the medical records, which did in fact demonstrate that Petitioner's back condition worsened around the time of the amended alleged onset date. The Court also concludes that the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinion evidence was likewise flawed. For these reasons, the Court remands this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this order.


         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); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); 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); Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005); 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 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, and for resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 12035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is also responsible for 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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