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Noriega v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

January 30, 2018

MARIA S. ENCINAS DE NORIEGA, Petitioner,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         Pending before this Court is Petitioner Maria S. Encinas de Noriega's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. 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, this Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On May 27, 2010, Maria S. Encinas de Noriega (“Petitioner”) filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2010 (later amended to May 27, 2010). This claim was initially denied on July 22, 2010 and, again, on reconsideration on October 21, 2010. On November 5, 2010, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On January 26, 2012, ALJ Lloyd E. Hartford held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Michael McCarthy, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Beth Cunningham, also appeared and testified at the same January 26, 2012 hearing.

         On March 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on May 3, 2012 and, on June 10, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the March 12, 2012 Decision and remanded the case to the ALJ to obtain additional information. On April 7, 2014, the ALJ held a second (video) hearing, at which time Petitioner, again represented by attorney Michael McCarthy, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Kent Granat, also appeared and testified at the same April 7, 2014 hearing.

         On May 13, 2014, the ALJ issued a second Decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on July 15, 2014 and, on January 11, 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 her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed the instant action, arguing that “[t]he Commissioner's decision that the Petitioner is not disabled contains legal errors and is not supported by substantial evidence . . . .” Pet. for Review, p. 3 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner identifies the “issue on appeal” as:

1. Should the ALJ have given controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician?
2. Did the ALJ give specific and legitimate reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of her treating physician?
3. Did the ALJ fail to consider whether her Fibromyalgia equaled a listed impairment?
4. Did the ALJ cite specific and legitimate reasons for finding the claimant was not credible?

         Pet.'s Brief, p. 5 (Docket No. 13). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse the ALJ's decision and find that she is entitled to disability benefits or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees. See id. at p. 16; see also Pet. for Review, pp. 3-4 (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).

         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 (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 her physical/mental impairments are and regardless of her age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the ...


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