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Stradley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 30, 2017

ANITA STRADLEY, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Hon. Candy W. Dale, United States Magistrate Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         Currently pending before the Court is Anita Stradley's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed on September 20, 2016. (Dkt. 1.)[2]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 recommend that the Court remand the decision of the Commissioner.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY

         Petitioner filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, and also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, on April 5, 2013. These applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on February 13, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Luke Brennan. After hearing testimony from Petitioner and a vocational expert, ALJ Brennan issued a decision on March 30, 2015, finding Petitioner not disabled. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on July 18, 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 1, 2013, Petitioner was forty-four years of age.[3] Petitioner completed the eleventh grade, and her prior work experience includes work as a customer service representative and as a collections manager.

         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 1, 2013. At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, idiopathic transverse myelitis, and loss of voice 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 any listed impairment, specifically considering Petitioner's fibromyalgia under Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint); back impairment under Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine); and transverse myelitis under Listing 11.00 (neurological disorders). 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, in formulating Petitioner's RFC, the ALJ reconciled the various medical source opinions. He considered the statements of the state agency medical consultants, Drs. Vestal and Song, giving their opinions partial weight. Next, the ALJ considered the opinions of Dr. John Casper, a consultative examiner, giving his opinion great weight. And finally, the ALJ gave treating physician Dr. Bill Laitinen's opinion partial weight. Also considered was Jon Perry, PA-C's opinion. The ALJ gave his opinion partial weight.

         Based upon the ALJ's assessment of the medical evidence in the record, the ALJ found Petitioner retained the residual functional capacity for sedentary work, with the following limitations: lift and carry twelve pounds occasionally and eight pounds frequently; stand or walk for ten minutes continuously, two hours out of an 8-hour day, with unlimited sitting; and perform occasional job tasks requiring speaking.

         The ALJ found Petitioner had past relevant work as a customer service representative and a collections manager, but was unable to perform those occupations due to her impaired speaking ability and restrictions upon standing and walking. 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 Petitioner retained the ability to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as document preparer, final assembler (optical), and stuffer. 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 ...


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