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Brewer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 27, 2018

TINA MARIE BREWER, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         Before the Court is Petitioner Tina Marie Brewer's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's denial of Petitioner's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits for lack of disability. 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

         On October 29, 2013, Tina Marie Brewer (“Petitioner”) filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning November 15, 2009 (later amended to March 16, 2013). The claim was initially denied on March 28, 2014 and, again, on reconsideration on October 8, 2014. On December 4, 2014, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On January 19, 2016, ALJ Melvin B. Werner held a video hearing in Wichita, Kansas, at which time Petitioner, represented by her then-attorney, John L. Brennan, appeared (from Independence, Kansas) and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Steve L. Benjamin, also appeared and testified at the same January 19, 2016 hearing.

         On February 29, 2016, 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 March 25, 2016 and, on June 12, 2017, 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 (through her current attorney, Mark B. Jones), 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, p. 1 (Docket No. 1). Petitioner identifies the “issues” here as a combination of: (1) whether the ALJ properly evaluated her mental impairments; (2) whether the ALJ included Petitioner's credible limitations into the hypothetical residual functional capacity posed to the vocational expert; and (3) whether the ALJ properly developed the record. See generally Pet.'s Brief, pp. 3-7 (Docket No. 15). 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. 4-5, 7; 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 is fluid and nuanced, requiring 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. ...


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