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McCoy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

July 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.



         Pending is Petitioner Teresa L. McCoy's Petition for Review[1] (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her not disabled and denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.[2] See generally Pet. for Review (Dkt. 1). This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Having carefully considered the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:


         On July 11, 2012, Teresa L. McCoy (“Petitioner”) protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits and for Title XVI supplemental security income. (AR 10.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning March 14, 2012 in both applications. (Id.) Her claims were denied initially on October 22, 2012 and then again on reconsideration on January 11, 2013. (Id.) On January 23, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner appeared and testified at an initial hearing held on September 11, 2014 in Spokane, Washington. (Id.) Based in part on the testimony of impartial medical expert Dr. Anthony Francis, M.D., Petitioner was sent for a consultative examination. (Id.) Petitioner then appeared and testified at a supplemental hearing on March 5, 2015. (Id.) Impartial medical expert Dr. Richard A. Hutson, M.D., and impartial vocational expert Kimberly Mullinax also appeared and testified. (Id.)

         On April 9, 2015, ALJ Caroline Siderius issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claims, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 19.) Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on April 29, 2015. (AR 6.) On July 26, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed this action, arguing that “[t]he conclusions and findings of fact of the [respondent] are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to law and regulation.” Pet. for Review 1 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner asserts the ALJ erred in finding her impairments did not meet or medically equal the official listing for spine disorders under Listing 1.04A. She further asserts error in a failure to consider her impairments in combination when evaluating whether she meets or medically equals a listed impairment. See generally Pet'r's Br. (Dkt. 18). Petitioner seeks reversal, or remand for a supplemental hearing. Id.

         Respondent moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that it was not timely filed. (Dkt. 11.) After reviewing the briefing and supporting materials (Dkts. 11-1, 11-2, 12-1, 13), this Court denied the motion, holding that Respondent had not shown the petition was untimely. (Dkt. 15.)


         To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664 (9th Cir. 2017). Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 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 Treichler v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).

         “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); Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance (Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674), 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. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. In such cases, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).

         With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Zavalin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 842, 845 (9th Cir. 2015); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Considerable weight must be given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). 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.” Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).


         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 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (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”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is work activity that is both substantial and gainful. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied regardless of her medical condition, age, education, and work experience. 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 March 14, 2012, the alleged onset date. (AR 12.)

         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. 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 physical or mental 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 establishes only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that cause no more than minimal limitation on an individual's ability to work. SSR 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 (July 2, 1996); see also 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has the following severe impairments: “spina bifida occulta defect; degenerative disc disease; and obesity.” (AR 12.)

         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. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal a listed impairment, her claim cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 13-14.)

         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. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. An individual's past relevant work is work she performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established, as long as the work was substantial gainful activity and lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. Here, the ALJ determined that Petitioner has the RFC:

to lift up to fifteen pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently, to sit up to four hours, and stand/walk up to six hours a day. She will need an option to alternate between sitting and standing. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and she can never crawl or kneel. She is limited to occasional bending, stooping, and crouching. She can frequently balance. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to wetness, humidity, vibration, and extreme temperatures. She is unable to work at unprotected heights and she must avoid uneven surfaces.

         (AR 14.) The ALJ further found that Petitioner is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (AR 17.)

         In the fifth and final step, if it is established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1011 (9th Cir. 2014). If the claimant is able to do such 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's RFC is compatible with work as an “assembler” or a “telephone information clerk.” (AR 18.) The ALJ further found that each of these jobs exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 17-18.)

         Based on the finding that Petitioner could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 14, 2012, through the date of this decision.” (AR 18.)

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner argues the ALJ's decision denying benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to law and regulation. Pet. for Review 1 (Dkt. 1). She contends the ALJ erred by finding that her back condition did not meet or medically equal listing 1.04A of the official listings. Pet'r's Br. 5-8 (Dkt. 18). She further contends the ALJ erred by failing to adequately explain how she considered the Petitioner's severe conditions in combination. Id. at 3-5.

         1. Petitioner Has Not Shown She Meets the ...

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