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McManigal v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 29, 2017

PAUL MCMANIGAL, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Honorable Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Pending is Petitioner Paul McManigal's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claim for disability and disability insurance benefits.[1] See generally Pet. for Review (Dkt. 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 November 23, 2012, Paul McManigal (“Petitioner”) protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits, and for Title XVI supplemental security income. Petitioner alleged disability beginning December 10, 2009, which he later amended to August 1, 2012. His claims were denied initially on February 5, 2013 and then again on reconsideration on September 13, 2013. On September 19, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On October 8, 2014, ALJ Luke A. Brennan held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, during which Petitioner, represented by attorney Taylor Mossman, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert Beth Cunningham also appeared and testified at the hearing.

         On December 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claim, concluding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on or about February 10, 2015 and, on June 8, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed the instant action, arguing that “[t]he decision denying Petitioner's claim is not in accordance with the purpose and intent of the Social Security Act, nor is it in accordance with the law, nor is it in accordance with the evidence, but contrary thereto and to the facts and against the evidence, in that Petitioner is disabled from performing substantial gainful activity.” Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner contends the ALJ erred in four ways: (1) by rejecting or ignoring the opinions of treating physicians; (2) by concluding that Petitioner's mental impairments did not satisfy Listing 12.04 for Affective Disorders; (3) by failing to consider all of Petitioner's impairments in concluding he could adjust to other jobs; and (4) by failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the credibility of Petitioner and his employer. Pet'r's Br. 8 (Dkt. 10). Petitioner requests that the Court remand for an immediate award of benefits. Id. at 20.

         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); Trevizo v. Berryhill, -- F.3d --, 2017 WL 4053751 at *6 (9th Cir. 2017). 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. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).

         “Substantial evidence” is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance (Trevizo, 2017 WL 4053751 at *6), 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. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. In such cases, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).

         With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Zavalin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 842, 845 (9th Cir. 2015); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Considerable weight must be given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). 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 the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in determining whether a person is disabled in general (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (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”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is work activity that is both substantial and gainful. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972. “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 is engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied regardless of his medical condition, 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 Petitioner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2012, the alleged onset date.[2] (AR 14).

         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. 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 physical or mental 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 establishes only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that cause no more than minimal limitation on an individual's ability to work. SSR 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 (July 2, 1996); see also 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). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has the following severe impairments: “schizoaffective disorder, depressive disorder, bipolar II disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), essential hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, asthma, obesity, and diabetes mellitus II.” (AR 14).

         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. 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 a listed impairment, his claim cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner's above-listed severe impairments do not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, the criteria established for any of the qualifying impairments. (AR 15).

         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. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. An individual's past relevant work is work he performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established, as long as the work was substantial gainful activity and lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. Here, the ALJ determined that Petitioner has the RFC:

to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He is able to sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour day, stand a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour day, and walk a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour day. He is able to frequently kneel and occasionally crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. He should never climb ladders or scaffolds, work at unprotected heights or with mechanical parts, or around dust, odors, fumes, or pulmonary irritants. He can occasionally tolerate exposure to humidity and wetness, extreme heat, and extreme cold. He is able to perform simple, routine tasks and can frequently respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, and the public.

(AR 18). He further found that Petitioner is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 23).

         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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1011 (9th Cir. 2014). 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 there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Petitioner can perform, including motel housekeeper, laundry aide, and parking lot attendant. (AR 24). 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 August 1, 2012, through the date of this decision.” Id.

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner argues the ALJ's decision denying benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and is not based upon the application of the correct legal standards. Pet'r's Br. 8 (Dkt. 10). Specifically, Petitioner asserts that the ALJ erred (1) in rejecting or ignoring the opinions of treating providers; (2) in concluding that Petitioner's mental impairments did not meet or equal Listing 12.04 for Affective Disorders; (3) in failing to consider all of Petitioner's impairments when evaluating whether Petitioner could adjust to other jobs; and (4) in failing to provide clear and convincing evidence for rejecting the credibility of Petitioner and his employer. Id. Each of these assignments of error are considered below.

         1. The ALJ Erred in Rejecting the Opinions of Petitioner's Treating Physicians without Providing Specific and Legitimate Reasons ...


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