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White v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 10, 2017

MICHELE WHITE, surviving spouse of TONY WHITE, 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 Michele White's (the surviving spouse of Tony White) Petition for Review, seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny Mr. White's claim for Title II Social Security disability benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income 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 January 27, 2012, Tony White filed his application for Disability Income Benefits; and, on February 14, 2012, protectively filed for Supplemental Security Income - in both applications, Mr. White alleged disability beginning January 15, 2012. The claims were initially denied on March 13, 2012 and, again, on reconsideration on July 17, 2012. On July 27, 2012, Mr. White timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On August 6, 2013, ALJ Doug Gabbard, II held a video hearing (from McAlester, Oklahoma), at which time Mr. White, represented by attorney Jonathan Heeps, appeared and testified from Paris, Texas. Impartial vocational expert, Bonnie M. Ward, also appeared and testified during the same August 6, 2013 hearing.

         On October 30, 2013, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Mr. White's claim, finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Mr. White timely requested review from the Appeals Council on December 23, 2013. Mr. White passed away on April 23, 2014. On January 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Mr. White's Request for Review, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner (Mr. White's surviving spouse) timely filed the instant action, arguing that “[t]he final Agency decision is not supported by substantial competent evidence and/or contains legal error.” Pet. for Review, p. 1 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner contends that (1) the ALJ did not give legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the treating cardiologist's opinion about Mr. White's ability to sustain work activity; (2) the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing reasons for finding Mr. White not credible; and (3) the ALJ failed to evaluate the relevant medical evidence before concluding that Mr. White's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. See generally Pet.'s Brief (Docket No. 15). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse the ALJ's Decision and find that Mr. White had been entitled to disability benefits, or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees. See Pet. for Review, p. 2 (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 his physical/mental impairments are and regardless of his 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 Mr. White had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2012, the alleged onset date. See (AR 24).

         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 Mr. White had the following severe impairments: “atherosclerotic heart disease, hypertension, status post coronary artery bypass graft with pacemaker implantation, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, relational problems NOS, [and] personality disorder NOS.” See (AR 24-26).

         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 Mr. White's above-listed impairments, while severe, did 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 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:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently; to stand and/or walk about six hours total during an eight hour work day; and to sit for about six hours total during an eight hour work day. He must be allowed to alternately sit and stand every 60 minutes throughout the workday in order to change positions but without leaving the workstation. He can perform semiskilled work (work which requires some detailed skills, but does not require doing more complex work duties) where interpersonal contact with supervisors and coworkers is on a superficial work basis, and he will have only occasional contact with the general public. In other words, he can perform less than the full range of “light” work.

See (AR 27-39) (citing 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), 416.967(b)).

         In the 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 Mr. White was unable to perform any past relevant work. See (AR 39). However, the ALJ further found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. White could perform, including small product assembler and electric assembler. See (AR 39-40). Therefore, based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Mr. White “ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 15, 2012, through the date of this decision.” (AR 40).

         B. Analysis

         1. The ALJ Properly Considered Dr. ...


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