United States District Court, D. Idaho
DOUGLAS L. SCHOENHUT, Petitioner,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Respondent.
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
E. Bush, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge
before this Court is Petitioner Douglas L. Schoenhut's
Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the
Social Security Administration's final decision to deny
his claim for 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:
January 7, 2013, Douglas L. Schoenhut
(“Petitioner”) filed an application for
disability insurance benefits, alleged disability beginning
June 21, 2012. Petitioner's claim was initially denied on
February 6, 2013 and, again, on reconsideration on April 24,
2013. On April 26, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request
for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). On February 24, 2014, ALJ Louis M.
Catanese, Jr. held a video hearing in Billings, Montana, at
which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Michael R.
Whipple, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert,
Beth Cunningham, also appeared and testified during the same
February 24, 2014 hearing.
April 9, 2014, 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 May 23, 2014 and, on July 21, 2015, the Appeals Council
denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of
exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely
filed the instant action, arguing that (1) “[t]he
decision of the [ALJ] and Appeals Council are not supported
by substantial evidence, and they did not consider crucial
evidence submitted in a timely fashion with regard to
claimant's impairments”; and (2) [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 law and regulations of the Social Security
Act.” Pet. for Review, p. 3 (Docket No. 1). In
particular, Petitioner contends that (1) the ALJ erred by
failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence
from Petitioner's treating sources; (2) the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate Petitioner's Veterans Administration
disability rating; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding
Petitioner not credible. See Pet.'s Brief, p. 2
(Docket No. 10). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court
either reverse the ALJ's decision and find that he is
entitled to disability benefits, or, alternatively, remand
the case for further proceedings and award attorneys'
fees. See Pet. for Review, pp. 3-4 (Docket No. 1).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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,
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).
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).
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
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 June 21, 2012, the alleged onset date.
See (AR 20).
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:
“degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar
spine, migraine headaches, obesity, bilateral hand
osteoarthritis, and a cognitive disorder.” (AR 20-21).
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 21-23).
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 his ability to do physical and mental
work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from
his 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 a range of light work as defined in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).” (AR 23). Specifically:
[Petitioner] could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, and could perform all other postural activities on
a frequent basis. He is limited to frequent bilateral
handling/fingering. He must avoid concentrated exposure to
noise. Finally, ...