Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Austin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 31, 2017

ROBERTA AUSTIN, 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 Roberta Austin's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits. See generally Pet. for Review (Docket No. 1). This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Having carefully considered the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On February 2, 2012, Roberta Austin (“Petitioner”) filed an application for Title XVI disability benefits, and, on February 8, 2012, an application for Title II disability insurance benefits - Petitioner alleged disability beginning December 22, 2011. These claims were initially denied on April 20, 2012 and, again, on reconsideration on August 9, 2012. On September 15, 2012, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On May 1, 2013, ALJ John T. Molleur held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Matt Steen, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Kent Graham, also appeared and testified during the same May 1, 2013 hearing.

         On June 5, 2013, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on June 24, 2013 and, on November 10, 2014, 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 filed the instant action, arguing that “[t]he conclusions of law made by the [ALJ] and the Appeals Council that Petitioner was not under a disability are incorrect and contrary to the laws and regulations of the Social Security Act.” Pet. for Review, p. 6 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner contends that (1) the ALJ erred in his assessment of Petitioner's credibility; (2) the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to Petitioner's treating physicians; and (3) in light of these errors, the ALJ failed to properly establish that Petitioner is able to do work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See Pet.'s Brief, p. 2 (Docket No. 16). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse the ALJ's decision and find that she is entitled to disability benefits, or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees. See Pet. for Review, pp. 6-7 (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. See 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. See 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. See 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. See 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, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. See 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. See 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.” See Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).

         II. 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”). See 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. See 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. See 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. See 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 Petitioner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 22, 2011, the alleged onset date. See (AR 27).

         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. See 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 establish 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner had the following severe impairments: “fibromyalgia, degenerative dis[c] disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, diabetes mellitus, migraine headaches, schizoaffective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), general anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.” (AR 27-28).

         The third step requires the ALJ to determine the medical severity of any impairments; that is, whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the answer is yes, the claimant is considered disabled under the Social Security Act and benefits are awarded. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal one of the listed impairments, the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. See id. Here, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner's above-listed impairments, while severe, do not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, the criteria established for any of the qualifying impairments. See (AR 28-30).

         The fourth step of the evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is sufficient for the claimant to perform past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). An individual's RFC is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. Likewise, an individual's past relevant work is work performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established; also, the work must have lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job and be engaged in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. Here, the ALJ determined that Petitioner has the RFC “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), ” except she can:

perform all postural activities occasionally and is limited to only occasional overhead reaching with both upper extremities. Additionally, the [Petitioner] is limited to only frequent handling and fingering with both upper extremities. Furthermore, the claimant should have no direct exposure to vibration. The claimant is limited to only frequent interaction with co-workers and supervisors, but can have no contact with the general public. Moreover, her work is limited to a low stress environment with only occasional decision-making or changes in the work setting.

(AR 30-36).

         In the fifth and final step, if it has been established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of her impairments, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant retains the ability to do alternate work and to demonstrate that such alternate work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 681 (9th Cir. 1993). If the claimant is able to do other work, she is not disabled; if the claimant is not able to do other work and meets the duration requirement, she is disabled. Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner is unable to perform any past relevant work. See (AR 36). However, the ALJ further found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Petitioner can perform, including washroom operator, waxer, and hand mounter. See (AR 36-37). Therefore, based on Petitioner's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 22, 2011, through the date of this decision.” (AR 37).

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's Decision “due to both the ALJ's consideration of Austin's credibility and his assignment of weight to the opinions of her treating physicians[;] [c]orrect evaluation of both these factors under the law results in such a restrictive RFC, that the occupational base is entirely eroded, and the ALJ cannot establish the presence of any employment that [Petitioner] can perform on a regular and continuing basis.” Pet.'s Brief, p. 7 (Docket No. 16). The undersigned considers these arguments below - preliminarily considering the ALJ's analysis of Petitioner's treating physicians' opinions because of its possible interplay with (and effect upon) the ALJ's assessment of Petitioner's credibility.

         1. The ALJ Properly Considered Petitioner's Treating Physicians' Opinions

         The medical opinion of a treating physician is entitled to special consideration and weight. See Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1989). Such deference is warranted because the treating physician “is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the individual.” Id. However, a treating physician's opinion is not necessarily conclusive. See id. at 762. If the treating physician's opinions are not contradicted by another doctor, they may be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Even if the treating physician's opinions are contradicted by another doctor, they can only be rejected if the ALJ provides specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See id. A lack of ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.