United States District Court, D. Idaho
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
Honorable Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge
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
AND FACTUAL HISTORY
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,
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.)
The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinion Evidence in the
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'