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Hyden v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 10, 2017

ROBERT WAYNE HYDEN Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         This decision resolves Petitioner Robert Hyden's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), which contests the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny him disability benefits.[1] The 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 December 4, 2009 Petitioner applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging a disability onset date of January 31st, 2009. (Dkt. 1, p. 2 & AR 353). The claim was denied, both initially and on reconsideration. Petitioner requested and obtained a hearing, held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) RJ Payne on July 25, 2011. ALJ Payne issued an unfavorable decision, which was remanded by the Appeals Council. A second, post-remand hearing was held on October 17, 2013, with a follow up hearing on February 3, 2014. These hearings were also conducted by Judge Payne. (AR 41-70 & 101-120).

         Dr. H.C. Alexander, a specialist in internal medicine and rheumatology, testified at the second hearing, as did Dr. Larry Kravitz, a psychologist. Vocational Expert K. Diane Kramer also testified, as did Petitioner. (Id.). Petitioner was assisted at the second hearing by a non-attorney representative. (AR 101).

         On February 13, 2014, the ALJ issued his second decision. This decision also denied Petitioner's claims, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 20-35). Petitioner sought a second review from the Appeals Council, (15-19), but that was denied on December 9, 2014, (AR 9-14), thus making ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         In his petition before this Court, Petitioner contends the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of various medical providers, primarily those of Doris Ziegeldorf, a treating nurse practitioner. Petitioner also argues that the ALJ improperly weighed inconsistent opinions about the extent of Petitioner's functional limitations, which were obtained from several state medical consulting physicians. Finally, Petitioner argues that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record, and improperly arrived at an adverse credibility finding that was not supported by clear and convincing evidence. (Dkt. 17 p. 2).

         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 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 Servs., 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 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 1035, 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 evidence, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in deciding 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 decide 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 not engaged in SGA since December 31, 2009 the alleged date of onset of his disability. (AR 25).

         The second step requires the ALJ to decide 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 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. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

         In this case, the ALJ found that Mr. Hyden had these severe impairments: right wrist tendinitis, left knee low-grade chondromalacia, a history of migraine headaches, hypertension, and obesity. (AR 25). The ALJ also concluded that Mr. Hyden had non-severe psychological impairments, consisting of an adjustment disorder with mild anxiety and depression and some evidence of schizoid personality traits that did not cause more than minimal limitations in Petitioner's ability to perform basic work activities. (AR. 27).

         The third step requires the ALJ to assess 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. 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. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). ...


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