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Lockman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 1, 2018

KRISTINA KAY LOCKMAN, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Honorable Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Currently pending before the Court is Kristina Kay Lockman's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed on March 17, 2017. (Dkt. 1.) 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 affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY

         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on July 16, 2013, alleging disability beginning July 11, 2013. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was conducted on December 2, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk. After hearing testimony from Petitioner, medical experts Haddon Alexander, M.D., and Nancy Winfrey, Ph.D., and from vocational expert Sharon Welter, ALJ Palachuk issued a decision finding Petitioner not disabled on December 21, 2015. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on January 17, 2017.

         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 December 2, 2015 hearing, Petitioner was forty-one years of age. Petitioner completed the ninth grade, and her prior work experience includes work as a floor attendant, a gambling cashier, a surveillance system monitor, and an attendant at a children's institution.

         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 after her alleged onset date of July 11, 2013. At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's morbid obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, osteoarthritis of the knees, and chronic pain severe within the meaning of the Regulations.

         Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for any listed impairments, specifically considering Listings 1.00 and 3.00 pertaining to the musculoskeletal system and respiratory system. 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.

         The ALJ determined Petitioner retained the RFC to perform sedentary work. She could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance and stoop. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants and all exposure to hazards, and no walking on uneven terrain. (AR 27.)

         Based upon the RFC assessment, the ALJ found Petitioner was able to perform her past relevant work as a floor attendant, gambling cashier, and surveillance system monitor. Accordingly, the ALJ did not proceed to step five.[1]

         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 the judge of credibility will be upheld as based on substantial evidence. Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 679-80 (9th Cir. 1993).

         DISCUSSION

         Petitioner argues the ALJ erred at step four, contending the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of examining physician J. Craig Stevens, M.D., and treating physician Michael Snyder, M.D. Petitioner asserts Dr. Stevens's consultative examination report was incomplete, and therefore the ALJ failed to fulfill her duty to develop the record by ordering a second consultative examination. Further, Petitioner argues the ALJ did not consider Petitioner's sleep apnea and its effect upon Petitioner's ability to work. Respondent disagrees, arguing the ALJ had no further duty to develop the record and appropriately weighed the physician opinions in ...


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