United States District Court, D. Idaho
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
E. BUSH, CHIEF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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.
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.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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,
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).
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).
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
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Assessment of
the Possibly Conflicting Medical Opinions
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).
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.
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),
. “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 ...