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Lewis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 29, 2019

WALTER R. LEWIS, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent,

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

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

         Before the Court is Petitioner Walter R. Lewis's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's denial of his application for Social Security Disability benefits for lack of disability. 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 March 11, 2014, Walter R. Lewis (“Petitioner”) protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2012. This claim was initially denied on July 31, 2014 and, again, on reconsideration on October 9, 2014. On December 3, 2014, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On May 6, 2016, ALJ Lloyd E. Hartford held a video hearing from Billings, Montana, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorney Brad D. Parkinson, appeared and testified (in Pocatello, Idaho). Anne T. Arrington, an impartial vocational expert, also appeared and testified at the same May 6, 2016 hearing.

         On July 27, 2016, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council and, on September 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed the instant action on January 10, 2018, arguing 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, p. 2 (Docket No. 1). Specifically, Petitioner claims that the ALJ erred in determining that he does not have a severe impairment. See Pet.'s Brief, p. 2 (Docket No. 16) (“Contrary to this finding, the evidence does support a finding of severe impairments and the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence.”). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse the ALJ's decision and find that he is entitled to disability benefits or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees. See id. at p. 10; see also Pet. for Review, 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). The standard is fluid and nuanced, requiring 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).

         With respect to questions of fact, the role of the Court is to review the entire record to determine whether it contains evidence that would allow 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 in medical testimony (see Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984)), resolving 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 (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).

         With respect 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. 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 his physical/mental impairments are and regardless of his 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 September 1, 2012, the alleged onset date.” (AR 17).

         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. See 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 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 the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has the following medically determinable impairments: “fracture of the left heel; right shoulder rotator cuff tear and right acromioclavicular (AC) joint osteoarthritis; deep vein thrombosis (DVT).” (AR 17). However, the ALJ went on to conclude that:

The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.

Id.

         Owing to the absence of a severe impairment, the ALJ did not consider the third, fourth, and fifth steps of the sequential process and concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from September 1, 2012, through the date of this Decision.” (AR 21) (internal citations omitted).

         B. ...


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