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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 28, 2019

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.



         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Jodi Ruth Williams's Petition for Review/Complaint (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits. See generally Pet. for Review/Compl. (Docket No. 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 December 24, 2013, Petitioner Jodi Ruth Williams (“Petitioner”) filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning March 25, 2011. Both claims were denied on March 20, 2014 and, again, on reconsideration on July 18, 2014. On August 7, 2014, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing. On February 17, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Christopher Inama held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Matt Steen, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Anne T. Arrington, also appeared and testified.

         On March 24, 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 a review from the Appeals Council and, on August 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making final the ALJ's decision.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed the instant action, arguing that “[t]he agency committed error of law by denying Appeals Council review of the decision by the [ALJ], or otherwise to deny relief that was within the authority of the Appeals Council”; “[Petitioner] is disabled”; and “[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/Compl., p. 2 (Docket No. 1). Petitioner argues that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment (“RFC”) is unsupported by substantial evidence because the ALJ “failed to provide manipulative limitations with the RFC that properly reflected [Petitioner's] capacity to finger, type, and use a computer mouse.” Pet.'s Brief, pp. 1, 8-13 (Docket No. 17). 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 p. 13; see also Pet. for Review/Compl., p. 2 (Docket No. 1).


         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 requires 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).

         As to questions of fact, the Court's role is to review the entire record to determine whether it contains evidence allowing 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 within the medical testimony (see Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984)), resolving any 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 contained in the record (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).

         As 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. At the same time, 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).


         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. §§ 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”). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. See 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant has engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied, regardless of how severe her physical/mental impairments are and regardless of her age, education, and work experience. See 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 25, 2011, the alleged onset date.” (AR 15).

         The second step requires a determination of whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe and meets the duration requirement. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits an individual's 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 establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. If there is no severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, benefits are denied. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ALJ found that Petitioner has the following severe impairments: “osteoarthritis of the right hand and of the right knee.” (AR 15).

         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. See 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal one of the listed impairments, the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. See id. Here, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner's above-listed impairments, while severe, do not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, the criteria established for any of the qualifying impairments. See (AR 17-18).

         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. See 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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. Likewise, an individual's past relevant work is work performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established; also, the work must have lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job and be engaged in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. On this point, the ALJ concluded:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), with some exceptions. Specifically, the claimant is occasionally able to climb ramps and/or stairs, is never able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, is occasionally able to balance and crouch, is never able to kneel or crawl, is never able to perform forceful gripping, grasping, or torqueing with the right dominant upper extremity, and is frequently able to handle and finger with the right dominant upper extremity. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold and to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery, and must avoid even moderate exposure to vibration.

(AR 18).

         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. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 681 (9th Cir. 1993). If the claimant can do 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 can perform past relevant work as a graphic designer because such work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Petitioner's RFC. See (AR 22-23). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from March 25, 2011, through the date of this decision.” (AR 23).

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner disagrees with the ALJ's determination that she “is frequently able to handle and finger with the right dominant upper extremity” (AR 18), arguing that the “magnitude of evidence” reveals that she can only “finger and handle less than frequently.” Pet.'s Brief, p. 10 (Docket No. 17); see also id. at p. 8 (“The record shows that [Petitioner's] ability to perform manipulative actions with her dominant hand is severely limited, and thus, she cannot frequently use her hand as the RFC purports.”). In this respect, Petitioner argues that the ALJ erred in improperly evaluating medical opinion evidence as well as her own symptom testimony, which resulted in an erroneous RFC at step four of the sequential process and, in turn, a finding that was not based on substantial evidence. Each of these arguments is addressed below.

         1. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Assessment of the Possibly Conflicting Medical Opinions

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical record. See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750. While the medical opinion of a treating physician is entitled to special consideration and weight, it is not necessarily conclusive. See Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1989). If the treating physician's opinions are not contradicted by another doctor, they may be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. See Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Even if the treating physician's opinions are contradicted by another doctor, they can only be rejected if the ALJ provides specific and legitimate reasons for doing so, supported by substantial evidence in the record. See id. A lack of objective medical findings, treatment notes, and rationale to support a treating physician's opinions is enough reason for rejecting that opinion. See Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the ALJ may discount physicians' opinions based on internal inconsistencies, inconsistencies between their opinions and other evidence in the record, or other factors the ALJ deems material to resolving ambiguities. See Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601-02 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Here, Petitioner takes issue with the ALJ's analysis of her RFC, arguing that, in accepting the opinions of non-examining State Agency medical consultants, the ALJ ignored the opinions of Ralph D. Heckard, M.D. and Janet King, FNP which “fully show[ ] that [she] had a debilitating impairment in her right, dominant, hand.” Pet's Brief, pp. 8-12 (Docket No. 17). Petitioner's arguments are misplaced for the following reasons.

         First, as noted by the ALJ, Petitioner was scheduled for a medical consultative examination with Dr. Heckard on February 26, 2014 because of the “minimal records” reflecting Petitioner 's complaints. (AR 20). And, while Dr. Heckard concluded that Petitioner “has findings at the right dominant wrist and hand of De Quervain's tenosynovitis” (AR 447), it cannot then be said - as Petitioner attempts to do here - that she “cannot logically handle and finger frequently.” Pet's Brief, p. 9 (Docket No. 17). That is, more must be done to connect a finding of De Quervain's tenosynovitis on the one hand, and Petitioner's alleged inability to frequently handle and finger with her right upper extremity on the other hand. Without more, one does not ipso facto equal the other. This is especially true when considering the balance of Dr. Heckard's findings (at least as to Petitioner's wrist), [1] including:

. “Muscle tone is intact and there is no measured asymmetry or atrophy of musculature.” (AR 445). Motor strength 5 out of 5 for right and left “wrist flexion-palmar flexion, ” “finger abduction, ” finger ...

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