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Sanderson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 8, 2017

MARCELLA J. SANDERSON, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         Currently pending before the Court is Marcella Sanderson's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed on June 17, 2016. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record (AR), and for the reasons that follow, will remand the decision of the Commissioner.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY

         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on September 18, 2012. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on February 19, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) MaryAnn Lunderman. After hearing testimony from Petitioner and a vocational expert, ALJ Lunderman issued a decision on May 27, 2014, finding Petitioner not disabled. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on April 13, 2016.

         Petitioner appealed this final decision to the Court. The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         At the time of the alleged disability onset date of January 3, 2012, Petitioner was forty-five years of age. Petitioner has a high school education, and her prior work experience includes work as a personnel clerk, a bookkeeper, and a coffee house worker.

         SEQUENTIAL PROCESS

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found Petitioner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 3, 2012. At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's discogenic and degenerative disorder of the back, mild degenerative changes of the right shoulder, fibromyalgia, and obesity severe within the meaning of the Regulations.

         Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for the listed impairments, specifically considering Petitioner's fibromyalgia and obesity under Section 1.04 (disorders of the spine). The ALJ determined none of Petitioner's impairments met or equaled the criteria for the listed impairment considered.

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine, at step four, whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. In assessing Petitioner's functional capacity, the ALJ determines whether Petitioner's complaints about the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her pain are credible.

         Here, the ALJ found Petitioner's complaints not entirely credible. Based upon the adverse credibility finding, the ALJ next rejected the opinions of Petitioner's treating physician, Dr. Hicks, and the third party statements of Petitioner's husband, a co-worker, and a neighbor, on the grounds that these witnesses simply “parroted the subjective complaints already testified to and reported by the claimant.” (AR 27.) After so doing, the ALJ determined Petitioner retained the RFC to perform light work, including her past work as a personnel clerk, bookkeeper, and coffee house worker, with limitations on climbing, overhead reaching with her right upper extremity, and no direct exposure to vibrations.

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate, at step five, that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant levels in the national economy, after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience. Here, the ALJ found also that Petitioner retained the ability to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as office helper, mail clerk, and counter clerk, all classified as light work. Consequently, the ALJ determined Petitioner was not disabled.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Petitioner bears the burden of showing that disability benefits are proper because of the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if her physical or mental impairments are of such severity that she not only cannot do her previous work but is unable, considering her age, education, and work experience, to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Universal Camera Corp. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474 (1951); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (as amended); DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). 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). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Jamerson v Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         The Court cannot disturb the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, even though other evidence may exist that supports the Petitioner's claims. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, will be conclusive. Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. It is well-settled that, if there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, the decision must be upheld even when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, because the Court “may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999).

         When reviewing a case under the substantial evidence standard, the Court may question an ALJ's credibility assessment of a witness's testimony; however, an ALJ's credibility assessment is entitled to great weight, and the ALJ may disregard a claimant's self-serving statements. Rashad v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1229, 1231 (9th Cir. 1990). Where the ALJ makes a careful consideration of subjective complaints but provides adequate reasons for rejecting them, the ALJ's well-settled role as the judge of credibility will be upheld as based on substantial evidence. Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 679-80 (9th Cir. 1993).

         DISCUSSION

         Petitioner believes the ALJ erred at step four. Specifically, Petitioner argues the ALJ erred in rejecting Petitioner's subjective complaints, failed to provide germane reasons for rejecting lay witnesses' statements, and erred in rejecting the opinion of treating physician Laurence V. Hicks, D.O. The Court will discuss each assignment of error in turn.

         1. Credibility

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). The ALJ's findings must be supported by specific, cogent reasons. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722. If a claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an ALJ may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints of pain based solely on lack of medical evidence. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 2005). See also Light v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997) ...


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