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Northness v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

February 7, 2017

v. ANGELA NORTHNESS, Petitioner, CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.


          Honorable Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge.


         Currently pending before the Court is Angela Northness's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed on November 3, 2015. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record (AR), and for the reasons that follow, will affirm the decision of the Commissioner.


         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on September 25, 2012. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on February 11, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) John Molleur. After hearing testimony from Petitioner, Petitioner's father, and a vocational expert, ALJ Molleur issued a decision on March 13, 2014, finding Petitioner not disabled. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on September 25, 2015.

         Petitioner appealed this final decision to the Court. The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         At the time of the hearing, Petitioner was twenty-eight years of age. Petitioner has a college education, having graduated from Boise State University with a bachelor's degree in English Literature in 2009.[1] Her prior work experience includes part-time work as a developmental therapy technician.


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Although Petitioner had prior work experience, the ALJ found Petitioner's previous work experience did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. Therefore, the ALJ found Petitioner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 17, 2011.

         At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's bipolar disorder, linea morphea, scleroderma, Sjogren's syndrome, and nephrolithiasis severe within the meaning of the Regulations.

         Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for the listed impairments, specifically considering Listings 12.04, affective disorders; 12.04, systemic sclerosis (scleroderma); 14.09, inflammatory arthritis; and 14.10, Sjogren's syndrome. The ALJ determined none of Petitioner's impairments met or equaled the criteria for the listed impairments considered.

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine, at step four, whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. In assessing Petitioner's functional capacity, the ALJ determines whether Petitioner's complaints about the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her pain are credible.

         Here, the ALJ found Petitioner's complaints not entirely credible. The ALJ found also that the medical source statements of Petitioner's treating physicians, Drs. Knibbe and Belnap, were not consistent with the medical records as a whole from Petitioner's onset date forward. Accordingly, the ALJ gave their opinions limited weight.

         After so doing, the ALJ determined Petitioner retained the RFC to perform less than the full range of light work, with limitations upon sitting, standing and walking. The ALJ found Petitioner was able to lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and should avoid climbing ladders and performing postural activities occasionally. The ALJ limited Petitioner to frequent forceful gripping or twisting, and handling and fingering, with her hands. The ALJ further limited Petitioner to avoiding concentrated exposure to dusts, fumes, gases, poor ventilation, noxious odors, and temperature extremes. Finally, the ALJ limited Petitioner to work requiring uninvolved 3-4 step tasks, occasional contact with the general public, and frequent interaction with co-workers and supervisors. (AR 18.)

         The ALJ found Petitioner had no past relevant work, and therefore proceeded to step five. The burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate, at step five, that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant levels in the national economy, after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience. Here, the ALJ found Petitioner retained the ability to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as office helper, warehouse support worker, and document preparer. Consequently, the ALJ determined Petitioner was not disabled.


         Petitioner bears the burden of showing that disability benefits are proper because of the 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if her physical or mental impairments are of such severity that she not only cannot do her previous work but is unable, considering her age, education, and work experience, to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Universal Camera Corp. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474 (1951); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (as amended); DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). 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). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Jamerson v Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         The Court cannot disturb the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, even though other evidence may exist that supports the petitioner's claims. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, will be conclusive. Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. It is well-settled that, if there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, the decision must be upheld even when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, because the Court “may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999).

         When reviewing a case under the substantial evidence standard, the Court may question an ALJ's credibility assessment of a witness's testimony; however, an ALJ's credibility assessment is entitled to great weight, and the ALJ may disregard a claimant's self-serving statements. Rashad v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1229, 1231 (9th Cir. 1990). Where the ALJ makes a careful consideration of subjective complaints but provides adequate reasons for rejecting them, the ALJ's well-settled role as the judge of credibility will be upheld as based on substantial evidence. Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 679-80 (9th Cir. 1993).


         Petitioner contends the ALJ erred at steps three and four. Specifically, Petitioner argues the ALJ's determination that Petitioner's mental impairments did not meet Listing 12.04 was in error; that he improperly rejected the opinions of Dr. Grant Belnap and Dr. Patrick Knibbe, as well as the testimony of Petitioner's father; and that the ALJ's credibility assessment was in error. Consequently, Petitioner asserts the RFC determination did not adequately take into account the cumulative effects of Petitioner's mental and physical limitations, and was erroneous. The Court will address each of Petitioner's arguments below.

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