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Noorigian v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

January 31, 2018

SHEREEN N. NOORIGIAN, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the United States Social Security Administration, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Shereen N. Noorigian's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying her application for child's insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and for adult Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 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

         In August 2013, Shereen N. Noorigian (“Petitioner”) filed an application for disability benefits, including a childhood disability, alleging disability beginning May 30, 2011. These claims were initially denied on September 24, 2013 and, again, on reconsideration on October 25, 2013. On October 30, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On June 22, 2015, ALJ Luke A. Brennan held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Joseph F. Brown, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Polly A. Peterson, also appeared and testified at the same June 22, 2015 hearing.

         On July 1, 2015, 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 August 12, 2015 and, on September 20, 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 conclusions and findings of fact of the defendant are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to law and regulation.” Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner identifies the “issues” here as:

1. Was the ALJ's credibility determination in accordance with controlling legal standards when he dismissed the testimony of the Petitioner and her grandmother, Hester I. Riggs, concerning intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her severe impairments?
2. Did the AL mischaracterize and/or ignore medical evidence, testimony, and third-party statements that were supportive of the Petitioner's claim in reaching his adverse decision?

         Pet.'s Brief, p. 3 (Docket No. 12). 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 pp. 9-10; see also 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).

         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. §§ 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 May 30, 2011, the alleged onset date.” (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. 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 Petitioner has the following severe impairments: Asperger's Syndrome, personality disorder, and general anxiety disorder. See (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. 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 Petitioner's above-listed impairments, while severe, do not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, the criteria established for any of the qualifying impairments. See (AR 15-16).

         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 her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her 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 that Petitioner has the RFC “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: “[S]he can perform simple, routine work tasks. She can tolerate occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.” (AR 16-18).

         In the fifth and final step, if it has been established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of her 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, she is not disabled; if the claimant is not able to do other work and meets the duration requirement, she is disabled. Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has no past relevant work, but found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Petitioner can perform, including hand packager, fruit cutter, and building maintenance laborer. See (AR 18-19). Therefore, based on Petitioner's age, education, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 30, 2011, through the date of this decision.” (AR 19) (internal citation omitted).

         B. Analysis

         1. Petitioner's Credibility

         As the trier-of-fact, the ALJ is in the best position to make credibility determinations and, for this reason, his determinations are entitled to great weight. See Anderson v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1121, 1124 (9th Cir. 1990); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998) (ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities). In evaluating a claimant's credibility, the ALJ may engage in ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, including consideration of claimant's reputation for truthfulness and inconsistencies in claimant's testimony, or between claimant's testimony and conduct, as well as claimant's daily activities, claimant's work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which claimant complains. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 958-59 (9th Cir. 2002). Also, the ALJ may consider location, duration, and frequency of symptoms; factors that precipitate and aggravate those symptoms; amount and side effects of medications; and treatment measures taken by claimant to alleviate those symptoms. See SSR 96-7p. In short, “[c]redibility decisions are the province of the ALJ.” Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 604 (9th Cir. 1989). However, to reject a claimant's testimony, the ALJ must make specific findings stating clear and convincing reasons for doing so. See Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1208 (citing Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722).

         Here, Petitioner alleges an inability to engage in any work activity, owing to her social anxiety and an inability to work with or be near others. For example, within her August 30, 2013 ...


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