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Atkinson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 26, 2019

GRACIE ATKINSON, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Respondent,

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Gracie Atkinson's Complaint/Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits for lack of disability. See generally Compl./Pet. for Review (Dkt. 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 October 28, 2014, Petitioner Gracie Atkinson (“Petitioner”) filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning November 20, 2013. This claim was initially denied on May 12, 2015 and, again, on reconsideration on August 5, 2015. On September 14, 2015, Petitioner timely filed a Request for Hearing. On April 20, 2017, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Willis held a hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner, represented by attorneys Jason K. Baril and Dale Robbins, appeared and testified. Impartial vocational expert Sara Statz also appeared and testified.

         On August 2, 2017, the ALJ issued a Decision denying Petitioner's claims, finding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council and, on May 23, 2018, 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 generally that “[t]he agency committed error of law by denying Appeals Council review of the decision by the Administrative Law Judge, or otherwise to deny relief that was within the authority of the Appeals Council”; “[she] is disabled”; and “[t]he conclusions and findings of fact of the Defendant are not supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to law and regulation.” Compl./Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Dkt. 1). Specifically, Petitioner claims that (1) “[t]he [residual functional capacity assessment] is unsupported by substantial evidence because it is not supported by medical opinion evidence and the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record by not obtaining such evidence”; and (2) “[t]he ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's allegations regarding the functionally limiting effects of her symptoms.” Pet.'s Brief, pp. 1, 12-18 (Dkt. 14). Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse the ALJ's Decision and find that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income or, alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and award attorneys' fees. See id. at p. 18; see also Compl./Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Dkt. 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 understood to be such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support an ALJ's finding/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 reached by the ALJ. See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. 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. ...


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