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Wilkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 25, 2018

DIANA CHRISTINE WILKINS 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 Diana Christine Wilkins'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 June 4, 2013, Petitioner Diana Christine Wilkins (“Petitioner”) applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 17.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning September 3, 2003, but later amended the alleged onset date of disability to November 20, 2009. (AR 17, 283.) Her claim was denied initially on August 28, 2013 and then again on reconsideration on February 11, 2014. (AR 17.) On April 9, 2014, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner appeared and testified at a hearing held on September 10, 2015 in Moreno Valley, California. (Id.) Impartial vocational expert Mary E. Jesko also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.)

         On February 19, 2016, ALJ Dana E. McDonald 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 amended alleged onset date through her date last insured. (AR 28.) Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on or about April 21, 2016.[3] (AR 4.) On June 12, 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 improperly discounting her testimony, by disregarding the opinion and medical evidence of record submitted by treating provider Dr. Haider, and by failing to obtain medical expert testimony. See generally Pet'r's Br. ISO Pet. for Review (Dkt. 11). 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 amended alleged onset date of November 20, 2009 through her date last insured of December 31, 2009. (AR 19.)

         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, through her date last insured, Petitioner had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease cervical and lumbar spine; status post lumbar fusion (November 2007) with status post lumbar hardware removal (August 2009); status post right knee arthroscopy (February 2009); and depression.” (AR 19.)

         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 did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 20-21.)

         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, through the date last insured, Petitioner had the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 40.1567(b) as follows: could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for 6 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday; and was limited to simple repetitive tasks.

(AR 21.) The ALJ further found that Petitioner was unable to perform any of her past relevant work through her date last insured. (AR 27.)

         In the fifth and final step, if it has been established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of her 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 representative occupations such as “garment folder, ” “seam presser, ” and “assembler.” (AR 28.) The ALJ further found that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id.)

         Based on the finding that Petitioner could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Petitioner “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from November 20, 2009, the amended alleged ...


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