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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 21, 2018

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.




         Currently pending before the Court for consideration is Teresa Marie Williams's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed February 7, 2017. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record (AR), and for the reasons that follow, will remand to the Commissioner with further instructions.


         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on June 11, 2015. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on May 25, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stephen Marchioro.

         After hearing testimony from Petitioner and vocational expert Cassie Mills, ALJ Marchioro issued a decision on July 22, 2016, finding Petitioner not disabled. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request on October 14, 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 hearing, Petitioner was 54 years of age. She has an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Boise State University. Petitioner's prior work experience includes full-time employment with the Army Reserve in human resources, and employment with the Ada County Juvenile Court as a probation officer. She was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve on October 16, 2013, due to a finding of permanent disability by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). (AR 334.) She claims she became disabled on January 22, 2014, and is applying for disability benefits from that date forward.


         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 22, 2014. (AR 34.)

         At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, obesity, chronic kidney disease, thrombosis, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral shoulders, status-post multiple shoulder surgeries, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, status post multiple surgeries, and degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine were all severe within the meaning of the Regulations. (AR 33); 20 CFR 404.1520(c). The ALJ determined that Petitioner's carpal tunnel syndrome, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension were not severe within the meaning of the Regulations, finding that the documented occurrence of the symptoms and impairments failed to meet the basic threshold for longevity and severity. Id.

         Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or equaled the criteria for the listed impairments, specifically considering listings 1.00, 1.00(B)(2)(c), 1.02, 1.04, 2.00, 4.00, 4.11, 5.00, 6.00, 6.02, 6.06, 8.00, 9.00(B)(5), 11.00, 12.00. (AR 34-35.) Petitioner does not challenge this finding.

         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. When assessing Petitioner's RFC, 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 consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. The ALJ found also that the disability rating from the VA was arrived at through different methodology than that used by the Social Security Administration and thus gave the rating little weight. After doing so, the ALJ determined Petitioner retained the RFC to perform light work, with limitations on all overhead lifting, restrictions against all climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds, and instructions to avoid exposure to excessive vibration, unprotected heights, and unguarded, moving mechanical parts. The ALJ found Petitioner was able to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently, and could stand or walk for up to six hours, and sit up for six hours during an eight-hour workday. The ALJ limited Petitioner to occasional balance activities, such as stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling, as well as occasional climbing of ramps and stairs. He also found she could occasionally reach overhead bilaterally.

         Although the ALJ found Petitioner had the residual functional capacity to perform her past work as a human resource manager, he also proceeded to step five. The Commissioner has the burden, at step five, to demonstrate 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 RFC, age, education, and work experience. Here, the ALJ found Petitioner retained the ability to perform the requirements of representative light work occupations such as a counter attendant, ticket taker, and silverware wrapper. Consequently, the ALJ determined Petitioner was not disabled.


         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 generally 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 a 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).


         Petitioner contends that the ALJ's decision to deny her benefits was not supported by substantial evidence and was based on the incorrect legal standard. Specifically, Petitioner argues that the ALJ erred at step two when he determined Petitioner's carpal tunnel syndrome, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension were not severe. Petitioner asserts the ALJ further erred when he rejected the opinion of a treating provider and the VA disability assessment in favor of non-examining, non-treating agency consultants. Petitioner alleges also that the ALJ erred when he found that the Petitioner's allegations of pain and other symptoms were not consistent with the medical record. And finally, Petitioner argues the ALJ erred by assigning Petitioner an RFC that is not supported by substantial evidence because it did not adequately account for the cumulative effects of Petitioner's limitations. The Court will address each of Petitioner's arguments in turn.

         1.Step ...

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