United States District Court, D. Idaho
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
HONORABLE RONALD E. BUSH CHIEF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
before this Court is Petitioner Lance Jonathan Bruhnke's
Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the
Social Security Administration's final decision to deny
his claim for Supplemental Security Income. 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:
February 7, 2012, Lance Jonathan Bruhnke
(“Petitioner”) filed an application for
Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning
January 1, 2012. Petitioner's claim was initially denied
on April 12, 2012 and, again, on reconsideration on June 22,
2012. On July 8, 2012, Petitioner timely filed a Request for
Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). On October 31, 2013, ALJ R.J. Payne held
a hearing in Spokane, Washington, at which time Petitioner,
represented by attorney Erica L. Wood, appeared and
testified, along with impartial medial expert, Margaret
Moore, Ph.D. A supplemental hearing was held on February 19,
2014 in Spokane, Washington, at which time impartial
vocational expert, Deborah Lapoint appeared and testified.
29, 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 July 23, 2014
and, on July 24, 2015, the Appeals Council denied
Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely
filed the instant action, arguing that the ALJ improperly
concluded that Petitioner was not performing at his full
capacity. See Pet.'s Brief, p. 2 (Docket No.
15). Specifically, Petitioner contends that (1) the ALJ erred
by failing to properly explain the weight given (or give
appropriate weight) to opinion evidence from lay witnesses;
and (2) the ALJ erred by failing to properly weigh the
examining psychologist's opinion. See id. at pp.
11-15. Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either
reverse the ALJ's decision denying Petitioner's claim
for disability benefits, or, alternatively, remand the case
for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees.
See Pet. for Review, p. 3 (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 February 7, 2012, Petitioner's application
date. See (AR 35).
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:
“borderline intellectual functioning and learning
disorder.” (AR 35-38).
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 38-39).
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 full range or work at all exertional
levels.” (AR 23). Specifically:
He is capable of handling simple, repetitive-type tasks, as
well as more complex instructions if given time to learn by
demonstration with direct-type training. He does not need
one-on-one instruction. He cannot work in high stress job
situations (e.g., angry members of the public or heavy use of
computer for data input). Public contact should be kept
limited (e.g., occasional and non-confrontational-type
contact). He can work adequately on a work crew. Supervision
requirements are normal; he does not require constant
fifth and final step, if it has been established that a
claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of
his 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, he is not disabled; if the
claimant is not able to do other work and meets the duration
requirement, he is disabled. Here, the ALJ found that
Petitioner has no past relevant work. See (AR 42).
However, the ALJ further found that there are jobs that exist
in significant numbers in the national economy that
Petitioner can perform, including housekeeper/cleaner, hand
packager, and automobile detailer. See (AR 43).
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 June 21, 2012, through the date of
this decision.” (AR 44).
Lay Witness Testimony
contends that the ALJ did not properly consider evidence from
two lay witnesses: (1) Petitioner's brother, Kurt
Bruhnke; and (2) TESH commercial services manager, Howard
Hogan. See Pet.'s Brief, pp. 11-12 (Docket No.
15). The evidence referred to from Mr. Bruhnke is a November
6, 2013 letter, which Petitioner characterizes as stating the
• In small jobs around the home, Petitioner was slow or
easily side-tracked. When Mr. Bruhnke's wife worked
beside Petitioner, he was able to stay on task.
• Trouble retaining information after many reviews -
example of lack of retention of details of a movie he had
watched dozens of times.
• Struggles to set goals or make plans perhaps due to a
fear of failure.
• Required assistance to fill out forms such as food