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Seybert v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 30, 2017

CORI L. SEYBERT Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER ON PETITION FOR REVIEW

          HONORABLE RONALD E. BUSH CHIEF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Now pending before the Court is Petitioner Cori Seybert's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her disability benefits.[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. BACKGROUND AND ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On March 26, 2013, Petitioner applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits, alleging a disability onset date of October 15, 2012. (AR 13). Her claim was initially denied on April 13, 2013, and denied upon reconsideration on June 19, 2013. (Id.). Following these denials, the Petitioner also filed an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits, on January 15, 2014, alleging the same disability onset date as her application for SSDI benefits. (Id.) The Petitioner thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) as to both claims, which hearing was held by video-conference on April 22, 2014. (Id.). ALJ Ben Wilner presided over the hearing, at which the Petitioner was present and represented by Mario Davila, a non-attorney representative. A Vocational Expert, Kent Granant, gave testimony at the hearing, as did Petitioner herself. (Id.) At the time of the hearing, Petitioner was 41 years old and had past relevant work as a data entry clerk, sales clerk, and as a cosmetic demonstrator. (Petitioner's Brief, Dkt. 16 at p. 2).

         On September 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Petitioner's claims, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 9-23). On October 1, 2014, Petitioner requested review from the Appeals Council. (AR 7.) The Appeals Council then denied review on December 9, 2015, (AR 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         Petitioner now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny her benefits. Petitioner contends the ALJ erred by failing to accord proper weight to the opinion evidence in the file, particularly by disregarding the opinions of Petitioner's treating orthopedist as to her ability to sit for more than two hours at a time. Petitioner also argues that the ALJ erred in finding that she was not fully credible as to the limiting effects of pain and other symptoms arising from primarily from her degenerative disc disease. (Petitioner's Brief at 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); 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 Serve., 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

          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. §§ 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 her physical/mental impairments are and regardless of her 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 the claimant had engaged in part time work for part of the period for which disability benefits were sought, namely, from the fall of 2012 through May of 2013. While the ALJ concluded that these activities did not rise to the level of SGA, he also concluded that they might be probative of other issues, such as the claimant's true residual functional capacity and her credibility. (AR 14-15).

         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 establishes 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 ...


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