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Lahti v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 27, 2018

NATALIE LAHTI, on behalf of CHAD LAHTI, deceased, Petitioner,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


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

         Pending is Petitioner Natalie Lahti's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her deceased husband Chad Lahti not disabled and denying his claim for disability insurance benefits.[1] 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.


         On May 2, 2013, Petitioner Natalie Lahti's husband, claimant Chad Ronald Lahti, [2]protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 21.) Claimant alleged disability beginning July 7, 2009.[3] (Id.) His claims were denied initially on August 13, 2013 and then again on reconsideration on December 16, 2013. (AR 21.) On February 13, 2014, Claimant timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Claimant appeared and testified at a hearing held on July 22, 2015 before ALJ Christopher R. Inama in Boise, Idaho. (Id.) Impartial vocational expert Anne F. Aastum also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.)

         On October 6, 2015, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Claimant's claim, finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 36.) Claimant timely requested review from the Appeals Council on or about November 18, 2015. (AR 17.) While Claimant's review was pending, he died of a pulmonary embolism on September 23, 2016. (AR 1818.) On January 12, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's Request for Review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Claimant's administrative remedies having been exhausted, Claimant's surviving wife timely filed the instant action on his behalf, arguing that “[t]he decision denying Petitioner's claim is not in accordance with the purpose and intent of the Social Security Act, nor is it in accordance with the law, nor is it in accordance with the evidence, but contrary thereto and to the facts and against the evidence, in that Petitioner is disabled from performing substantial gainful activity.” Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner contends the ALJ erred by failing to consider the impact of all of Claimant's physical and mental impairments in assigning a residual functional capacity, by not providing clear and convincing evidence to support his decision that Claimant was not credible, and by improperly rejecting the opinions of treating provider Dr. Scott Hoopes and lay witness (and Petitioner here) Natalie Lahti. See generally Pet'r's Mem. ISO Pet. for Review (Dkt. 13). Petitioner asks for reversal and a holding that Claimant was disabled for a certain closed period, or, alternatively, for remand for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 20.


         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 his 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 Claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of July 7, 2009 through his date last insured of December 31, 2013. (AR 23.)

         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 the date last insured, Claimant had the following severe impairments: “diabetes mellitus type II (‘diabetes'), major motor seizures, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychosis, depression, anxiety disorder and alcohol-substance addiction disorder.” (AR 23.)

         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, his 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 Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 26-29.)

         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 his ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. An individual's past relevant work is work he 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 Claimant had the RFC:

to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 40.1567(b), except limited to occasional climbing ramps and stairs; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequent balance, stoop, kneel and crouch; occasional crawl; avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations; and avoid all exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. He is also limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; with only simple work related decisions; few workplace changes; rare, meaning 5% of the workday, interaction with supervisors and co-workers, with no tandem tasks, and no public contact.

(AR 29.) The ALJ further found that Claimant was unable to perform any of his past relevant work through his date ...

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