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Artemenko v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 29, 2019

LYUDMILA ARTEMENKO, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent,

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          RONALD E. BUSH CHIEF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Lyudmila Artemenko's Petition for Review (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 (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:

         I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On November 28, 2012, Petitioner Lyudmila Artemenko (“Petitioner”) filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning October 15, 2009 (later amended to June 13, 2011). Both claims were denied on April 3, 2013 and, again, on reconsideration on June 5, 2013. On June 24, 2013, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing. On June 11, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Louis Catanese, Jr. held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Taylor Mossman, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert, Polly Peterson, also appeared and testified.

         On September 15, 2014, 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 May 31, 2016, 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 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, p. 2 (Docket No. 1). In particular, Petitioner argues that (1) “[t]he ALJ erroneously rejected the opinions of treating physicians and consultative examiner John Casper, M.D.”; (2) “[i]n finding that the Petitioner had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, the ALJ erred”; (3) “[t]he ALJ erred by not properly considering whether [Petitioner's] conditions meet or equal the Medical-Vocational Guidelines under Appendix 2 to Subpart P of Part 404”; and (4) “[t]he ALJ erroneously rejected the credibility of [Petitioner] by not providing clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Pet.'s Mem. ISO Pet. for Review, p. 8 (Docket No. 18). 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. 20; see also Pet. for Review/Compl., p. 2 (Docket No. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 record as a whole 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).

         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 (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 June 13, 2011, the alleged onset date.” (AR 14).

         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: “obesity, hypertension, meralgia paresthetica, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, dermatitis of the hands, and a history of migraine headaches.” (AR 14).

         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 16).

         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 light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she is limited to frequently handling and fingering. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can balance on an unlimited basis. She can frequently stoop and climb stairs or ramps. She can occasionally kneel, crouch and crawl.

(AR 16).

         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). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner is capable of performing past relevant work as a teacher's aide/office manager (as well as other jobs) 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 June 13, 2011, through the date of this decision.” (AR 23).

         B. Analysis

         1. Petitioner's Physician's Conflicting Opinions[1]

         Petitioner claims that the ALJ improperly considered the medical evidence - specifically, the various treating and examining physicians' opinions speaking to her functional limitations. See Pet.'s Brief, p. 6 (Docket No. 18) (“The ALJ erroneously rejected the opinions of treating physicians and consultative examiner John Casper, M.D.”). The ALJ is responsible for resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical testimony. See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750. The ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted medical opinion of a treating or examining physician, or specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting contradicted opinions, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence. See Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). However, “[t]he ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012). 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 argues that the ALJ did not give the appropriate level of deference to the opinions of Eric Hall, D.O, James Whiteside, M.D., and John Casper, M.D. See Pet.'s Brief, pp. 8-13 (Docket No. 18).

         a. Dr. Hall

         Dr. Hall, a treating physician since May 2013, opined in a June 2, 2014 “Medical Opinion” that, “[b]ecause of her severe left hip pain, [Petitioner] is not capable of any job requiring lifting” and that “she also would have difficulty sitting for long periods of time (more than one hour at a time).” (AR 596). Dr. Hall additionally opined that Petitioner is not capable of engaging in any type of work on a full-time basis and would be absent from work 4-5 times per month because of her “left hip pain/meralgia paresthetica.” Id. ...


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