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Martinez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 10, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.


          Honorable Candy W. Dale United States Magistrate Judge.


         Pending before the Court is Sasha Dee Martinez's Petition for Review of the Respondent's denial of social security benefits, filed December 20, 2017. (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 remanded to the Commissioner with further instructions.[1]


         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on June 25, 2014, alleging disability beginning February 14, 2014.[2] This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on October 31, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Tanya Dvarishkis. After hearing testimony from Petitioner and Vocational Expert Kent Granat, the ALJ issued a decision finding Petitioner not disabled on January 3, 2017. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on October 16, 2017.

         Petitioner timely appealed this final decision to the Court on December 20, 2017. The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Petitioner has a high school education, no prior work experience, no transferable job skills, and her date last insured was June 30, 2014. At the time of the hearing, Petitioner was 30 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 not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, February 14, 2014. At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner's chronic myositis, chronic cough and mixed rhinitis, headaches, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be severe within the meaning of the Regulations. (AR 20.) However, the ALJ found Petitioner's neuropathy, medical epicondylitis, postherpetic neuralgia, ilioinguinal nerve neuralgia, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and fibromyalgia were 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 the listed impairments, specifically Listings 1.02 (Major Dysfunction of a Joint), 3.03 (Asthma), any of the Appendix 1 impairments in Section 11.00 (Neurological), 12.04 (Affective Disorders), and 12.06 (Anxiety Disorders). 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 Petitioner retained the RFC to perform light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) and § 416.967(c), except she can frequently climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; but she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can have only occasional exposure to noise levels greater than “moderate” as defined in the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (“SCO”) and can never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, or other workplace hazards. She can have only occasional exposure to vibration, extreme cold, and pulmonary/respiratory irritants. She can understand, remember and carryout simple, routine tasks in a job involving only simple decisions and not more than occasional changes in the routine work setting and job duties. She cannot do any high production or pace work, but she may have quota requirements so long as she can control the pace of work. She can have only brief, superficial contact with coworkers, and no contact with the public. She cannot do any jobs requiring tandem job tasks or cooperation with coworkers for task completion. (AR 24.)

         In making the RFC determination, the ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (AR 25.) The ALJ considered and discussed the Petitioner's testimony, Idaho Department of Correction records, function reports from Petitioner's mother, medical records, and the opinions of Petitioner's various treating providers contained in the medical records, including, as relevant here: Dr. Craig Denny, MD; Dr. Robert Charlton, PhD; John Cuolo, MEd; Dr. Michael Dennis, PhD; Dr. Mack Stephenson, PhD; Dr. Thomas Coolidge, MD; and Dr. Michael O'Brien, MD. (AR 24-28.) In particular, the ALJ found the RFC was supported by the opinions of Dr. Charlton, Mr. Cuolo, Dr. Dennis, and Dr. Stephenson. (AR 28.)

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to the 2014 psychological evaluation of Dr. Charlton, examining psychologist, who concluded Petitioner had major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, which could likely be managed with therapeutic methods. (AR 27.)[3]

         Petitioner's treating doctor, Dr. Denny, completed a mental RFC form in 2016, opining that Petitioner's mental impairments caused marked limitations in all of the listings criteria. The ALJ, however, gave this opinion only “little weight, ” stating Dr. Denny's conclusions regarding Petitioner's specific limitations were inconsistent with the record as a whole and because Dr. Denny's opinion was rendered on a check-box form. (AR 27-28.)

         The ALJ afforded “great weight” to the opinions of two state agency reviewing psychologists, Dr. Dennis and Dr. Stephenson, who concluded the Petitioner had affective disorder and anxiety disorder resulting in mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate limitations in social functioning; moderate difficulty in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace; and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration.

         The ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions of two other state agency reviewing physicians, Dr. Coolidge and Dr. O'Brien, who found Petitioner had no severe medically determinable impairments. The ALJ found these two opinions to be inconsistent with the significant amount of treatment Petitioner had undergone. (AR 27.) The ALJ also gave “little weight” to the Idaho Department of Corrections records Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score but gave “some weight” to the function reports provided by Petitioner's mother. (AR 28.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ concluded the evidence in the record showed that Petitioner's impairments resulted in a number of functional limitations which were accounted for in the RFC but that the evidence did not support additional restrictions.

         The Petitioner had no past relevant work and, therefore, the burden shifted to the Commissioner to demonstrate, at step five, that the claimant retained 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.[4]

         After evaluating the record and considering the hypothetical posed by the Vocational Expert, Petitioner's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined the Petitioner could perform the requirements of unskilled, light-duty occupations such as garment folder, produce weigher, and electrode cleaner, all of which are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 29.) Consequently, the ALJ determined the 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. Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. 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).


         On review, Petitioner argues (1) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and (2) the ALJ improperly admitted additional evidence obtained post-hearing. (Dkt. 18.)

         1. Whether the ALJ's Decision is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Petitioner argues the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, because the ALJ failed to properly consider and weigh the opinions of Dr. Charlton and Dr. Denny.

         A. The ALJ's consideration of Dr. Charlton's Diagnosis and Opinion

         Petitioner asserts the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider Dr. Charlton's diagnosis of Moodiness and Antisocial Behavior as a severe impairment and failing to adequately discuss the functional impact and limitations of Petitioner's impairments as described by Dr. Charlton in the psychological evaluation when making the listings determination. (Dkt. 18.) Respondent maintains the ALJ's decision properly addressed Dr. Charlton's diagnosis and findings regarding Petitioner's functional limitations. (Dkt. 19.)

         1. The ALJ Properly Listed Dr. Charlton's Diagnosis

         Dr. Charlton's 2014 psychological evaluation of Petitioner provided the following Multiaxial Diagnosis:

Axis I: 296.33 Major Depression (recurrent, severe, without psychotic features)
300.02 Generalized Anxiety Disorder
309.81 Posttraumatic Stress ...

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