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Mora v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 18, 2018

STACEY EILEEN MORA Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         Pending is Petitioner Stacey Eileen Mora's Petition for Review[1] (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her not disabled and denying her claim for disability insurance benefits.[2] See Pet. for Review (Dkt. 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

         On July 10, 2013, Petitioner Stacey Eileen Mora (“Petitioner”) applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 20.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning September 1, 2009. (Id.) Her claim was denied initially on September 4, 2013 and then again on reconsideration on September 19, 2013. (Id.) On September 23, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner appeared and testified at a hearing held on August 27, 2015 in Spokane, Washington. (Id.) Impartial medical experts R. Thomas McKnight, Ph.D., and Wil Nelp, M.D., appeared and testified at that hearing. (Id.) Petitioner subsequently appeared and testified at a second hearing held on January 13, 2016, also in Spokane, Washington. (Id.) Impartial vocational expert K. Diane Kramer appeared and testified at this second hearing. (Id.)

         On February 17, 2016, ALJ Marie Palachuk issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the period from her alleged onset date through the date last insured. (AR 31.) Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on or about April 14, 2016. (AR 4.) On June 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner filed this case. She contends 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 argues that the ALJ erred by failing to obtain updated medical expert testimony and by failing to give the opinions of treating provider Dr. De Silva proper weight. See generally Pet'r's Br. ISO Pet. for Review (Dkt. 15). Petitioner asks for reversal and a holding that she is disabled, or, in the alternative, that the case be remanded for a further hearing. Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         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 (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 did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of September 1, 2009 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014. (AR 22.)

         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). ...


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