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Bingham v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2019

DONNA D. BINGHAM, Petitioner,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE RONALD E. BUSH CHIEF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending is Petitioner Donna D. Bingham's Petition for Review (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her not disabled and denying her claim for disability insurance benefits.[1] See 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 August 19, 2014, Petitioner Donna D. Bingham (“Petitioner”) protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 13.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning August 18, 2014. (Id.) Her claim was denied initially on November 14, 2014 and then again on reconsideration on March 27, 2015. (Id.) On March 31, 2015, Petitioner timely filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner appeared and testified at a hearing held on February 8, 2017 in Boise, Idaho. (Id.) Impartial vocational expert Polly A. Peterson also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.)

         On June 19, 2017, ALJ Christopher R. Inama issued a decision denying Petitioner's claim, finding that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the period from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 24.) Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council on August 14, 2017. (AR 156.) On May 16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's Request for Review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 1.)

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner filed this case. She contends that “[t]he decision denying Petitioner's claim is not in accordance with the purpose and intent of the Social Security Act, nor is it in accordance with the law, nor is it in accordance with the evidence, but contrary thereto and to the facts and against the evidence.” Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner argues that the ALJ erred by (1) improperly rejecting the opinions of treating providers; (2) determining that Petitioner's allegations of pain and other symptoms were not consistent with the medical evidence of record without providing clear and convincing reasons; (3) dismissing third party testimony without providing germane reasons; and (4) assigning an RFC that was not supported by substantial evidence. See generally Pet'r's Mem. (Dkt. 11). Petitioner asks for reversal and a finding that she is disabled, with a remand for an immediate award of benefits. Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1); Pet'r's Mem. 20 (Dkt. 11).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664 (9th Cir. 2017). Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 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 Treichler v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).

         “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); Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance (Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674), and “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

         With respect to questions of fact, the role of the Court is to review the record as a whole to determine whether it contains evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig, 681 F.3d at 1051. In such cases, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004).

         With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Zavalin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 842, 845 (9th Cir. 2015); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1098. Considerable weight must be given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). 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.” 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 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is work activity that is both substantial and gainful. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572, 416.972. “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a). “Gainful work activity” is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied regardless of her medical condition, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step. Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of August 18, 2014 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 15.)

         The second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe and meets the duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” within the meaning of the Social Security Act if it significantly limits an individual's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is “not severe” if it does not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522, 416.922. If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that, as of the date of his decision, Petitioner had the following severe impairments: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) / Collagenous Colitis.” (AR 16.)

         The third step requires the ALJ to determine the medical severity of any impairments; that is, whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the answer is yes, the claimant is considered disabled under the Social Security Act and benefits are awarded. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal a listed impairment, her claim cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 18.)

         The fourth step of the evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is sufficient for the claimant to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). An individual's RFC is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. An individual's past relevant work is work she performed within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established, as long as the work was substantial gainful activity and lasted long enough for the claimant to learn to do the job. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. Here, the ALJ determined that Petitioner had the RFC:

to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except she can tolerate uninterrupted standing and walking up to 30 minutes at a time and 3-hours out of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can sit for 1-hour at a time, for up to 8-hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl and has no manipulative limitations. The claimant should not be subjected to concentrated exposure of vibration and should avoid all exposures to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. She cannot perform commercial driving. The claimant should work indoors within 150 feet from a restroom.

         (AR 18.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ further found that Petitioner was capable of performing her past relevant work as a purchasing agent and as an insurance clerk. (AR 23-24.) The ALJ did not reach the fifth step of the analysis because his conclusion at the fourth step mandated a finding that Petitioner was not disabled.

         Based on the finding that Petitioner could perform past relevant work at step four of the analysis, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Petitioner “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 18, 2014, through the date of this decision.” (AR 24.)

         B. Analysis

         Petitioner raises four primary issues with the ALJ's decision. First, she argues the ALJ erred by improperly rejecting the opinions of treating providers. Second, she argues the ALJ erred by improperly rejecting her subjective testimony. Third, she argues the ALJ erred by improperly dismissing third party testimony. Fourth, she argues the ALJ erred by assigning an RFC that is not supported by substantial evidence. See generally Pet'r's Mem. (Dkt. 11). Each argument will be addressed in turn.

         1. The ALJ Erred in Weighing the Opinions of Certain ...


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