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Witcher v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 9, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.


          Honorable Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge


         Pending before the Court is Sondra Marie Witcher's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed May 17, 2018. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition, the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the Administrative Record (AR). For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.[1]


         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on December 4, 2014, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on November 30, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Lloyd E. Hartford. After hearing testimony from Petitioner and Vocational Expert Kent Granat, the ALJ issued a decision finding Petitioner not disabled on February 22, 2017. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on March 16, 2018.

         Petitioner appealed this final decision to the Court. The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Petitioner has a high school equivalent (GED) education. Petitioner's prior work experience includes working at a grocery store beginning in 1995 and, most recently, as a manager of the deli department at the grocery store throughout 2009 until October 2010. (AR 235.) Petitioner has not been employed since leaving that position. Petitioner's date last insured was December 31, 2015. At the time of the November 30, 2016 hearing, Petitioner was 51 years of age.


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found Petitioner had engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1, 2009, through October 31, 2010. However, the ALJ found Petitioner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2010, making that the disability onset date. (AR 16.) At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and degenerative joint disease of the knees, ankles, and left foot constitute severe impairments within the meaning of the Regulations. (AR 16.) However, the ALJ found Petitioner's allegations regarding mild obesity, right (lateral) elbow epicondylitis, and depression are non-severe impairments under the Regulations.

         Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for any listed impairments. The ALJ considered Listings 1.02 (Major Dysfunction of a Joint), 1.03 (Reconstructive Surgery of a Major Weight Bearing Joint), and 1.04 (Spine Disorder). (AR 17-18.) If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine, at step four, whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work.

         The ALJ determined that, up through her date last insured of December 31, 2015, Petitioner retained the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and § 416.967(a), with the limitations that she cannot frequently climb ramps or stairs; balance, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (AR 18-19.)

         In making the RFC determination, the ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms she alleges, but that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (AR 19.) The ALJ considered and discussed the opinions of Petitioner's various treating providers contained in the medical records: Dr. Jared Price, DO; Dr. Chris Johnson, DO; Dr. Greg West, MD; Dr. Gail Fields, DO; Dr. Travis Nielsen, DO; Dr. Marc Porot, MD; Gary Myers, PA; Dr. Prashanth Manjunath, MD; Richardson Weldon, PA; and Holly Zoe, MD. (AR 18-21.)

         The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Fields' medical source statements that Petitioner would miss more than four days of work per month, needed a job where she could sit and stand/walk at will for a maximum of two hours each day in a 8-hour workday, could occasionally lift less than ten pounds, and could rarely perform postural activities. (AR 19-20.) The ALJ found Dr. Fields' opinion was not supported by other evidence in the record; namely, the several other doctors who have ongoing treatment relationships with Petitioner who report very different clinical findings. Additionally, the ALJ found Dr. Fields is not a specialist in mental health and he did not treat Petitioner for depression or suggest any finding which would lead to a functional restriction.

         The ALJ discussed the medical records from each of the other treating doctors and providers who found that Petitioner's conditions were “stable” and being successfully treated and managed with medication. (AR 19-21.) In particular, the ALJ detailed the records from Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Porot, both of whom had an ongoing treatment relationship with Petitioner during the time of alleged disability and both of whom reported that Petitioner's conditions were stable, being treated with medications, and that she was capable of all daily activities. The ALJ also detailed the clinical findings of the other health care professionals in the record who similarly reported that Petitioner's conditions were stable, being treated with pain medications, and that Petitioner was able to ambulate independently, had a normal gait, and negative straight leg raise.

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to the State Agency Disability Determination Services' (DDS) opinions that conclude the record showed the Petitioner's depression was not severe and that she can perform a range of sedentary work consistent with the RFC. (AR 20-21.) The ALJ gave “some weight” to the lay statement submitted by Petitioner's husband describing Petitioner's daily activities and his observations of her symptoms. (AR 21.) While the ALJ found this statement was consistent with other documentation in the file, the ALJ noted it was not objective evidence.

         Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner's degenerative disc and joint disease would result in a number of physical limitations but that there is little evidence to support a finding that Petitioner would be unable to sustain work requiring only those limited physical demands consistent with his RFC determination in this case. (AR 21.)

         Based upon his RFC finding, the ALJ next found that Petitioner was not able to perform her past relevant work as a grocery store deli department manager. (AR 21.) If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate, at step five, that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant levels in the national economy, after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience.

         After evaluating the record and considering the hypothetical posed by the Vocational Expert, Petitioner's age, education, work experience, and the RFC, the ALJ determined the Petitioner was able to perform sedentary work as an inventory clerk, information clerk, and food checker, all of which are sedentary jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 22.) Consequently, the ALJ determined Petitioner was not disabled.


         Petitioner bears the burden of showing that disability benefits are proper because of the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which…has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if her physical or mental impairments are of such severity that she not only cannot do her previous work but is unable, considering her age, education, and work experience, to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Universal Camera Corp. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474 (1951); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (as amended); DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). 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). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Jamerson v Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         The Court cannot disturb the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence, even though other evidence may exist that supports the petitioner's claims. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, will be conclusive. Id. It is well-settled that, if there is substantial evidence to support the decision of the Commissioner, the decision must be upheld even when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, because the Court “may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999).

         When reviewing a case under the substantial evidence standard, the Court may question an ALJ's credibility assessment of a witness's testimony; however, an ALJ's credibility assessment is entitled to great weight, and the ALJ may disregard a claimant's self-serving statements. Rashad v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1229, 1231 (9th Cir. 1990). Where the ALJ makes a careful consideration of subjective complaints but provides adequate reasons for rejecting them, the ALJ's well-settled role as the judge of credibility will be upheld as based on substantial evidence. Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 679-80 (9th Cir. 1993).


         Petitioner raises two issues for review: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Petitioner's treating physician, Dr. Fields, and (2) the ALJ's credibility findings were defective. (Dkt. 16.)

         1. The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinion Evidence in the Record

         Petitioner argues the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of her treating specialist, Dr. Fields, consistent with the regulations, Agency policy, and Ninth Circuit precedent. (Dkt. 16, 21.) Respondent maintains the ALJ correctly weighed the medical evidence and determined that Dr. Fields' opinion ...

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