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Delia v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 23, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Respondent.


          Honorable Candy W. Dale, United States Magistrate Judge


         Pending before the Court is Kathleen Grace Delia’s Petition for Review of the Respondent’s denial of social security benefits, filed July 16, 2018. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition, Answer, the parties’ memoranda, and the administrative record (AR). For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner[1] will be affirmed.


         Petitioner filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on November 5, 2014, claiming disability beginning July 15, 2014. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on January 13, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Lloyd E. Hartford. After hearing testimony from Petitioner; a medical expert, Colette Valette, Ph.D.; and a vocational expert, Jerry Gravatt, the ALJ issued a decision finding Petitioner not disabled on June 7, 2017. Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on May 11, 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).

         At the time of the hearing, Petitioner was 54 years of age. Petitioner has a high school education and attended special education classes. Petitioner’s prior work experience includes work as a retail specialist, auto-parts deliverer, retail laborer, retail sales, and auto shop secretary.


         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 of July 15, 2014.

         At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found Petitioner’s obesity, autoimmune hepatitis, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and undifferentiated connective tissue disease were severe impairments within the meaning of the Regulations. However, the ALJ found Petitioner’s fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and borderline personality disorder were nonsevere impairments. In so finding, the ALJ discussed the medical evidence in the record. The ALJ assigned limited weight to the opinion of Petitioner’s treating therapist, Chester Mardis, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), and the state agency reviewing physicians. The ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of the medical expert who testified at the hearing, Colette Valette, Ph.D., clinical psychologist.

         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 listing 5.05 (Chronic Liver Disease) and listing 14.06 (Undifferentiated and Mixed Connective Tissue Disease).

         If the 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 demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ determined Petitioner retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with some physical limitations on her ability to lift, carry, push, or pull certain weights; stand, walk, and/or sit; climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; perform fine hand manipulations; and that Petitioner should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat, odors, dust, gases, and fumes; avoid working near hazards such as heights and around machinery; but that Petitioner had no visual or communicative limitations. (AR 23.)

         In determining the RFC, the ALJ found the Petitioner’s impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that Petitioner’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely consistent with the evidence in the record. The ALJ reviewed the evidence in the record and discounted the opinion of one of Petitioner’s treating physicians, Brad Hyatt, D.O., and also gave limited weight to the state agency reviewing physicians and the lay statements of Petitioner’s mother and husband.

         The ALJ found Petitioner was able to perform her past relevant work as a stock clerk. Therefore, the ALJ determined Petitioner was not disabled and did not proceed to step five where the burden would have shifted to the Commissioner to demonstrate 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 RFC, age, education and work experience.


         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 their physical or mental impairments are of such severity that they not only cannot do their previous work, but are also 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 was supported by substantial evidence and was 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 ...

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