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Gibson v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2019

ZELTA M. GIBSON, 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 Zelta M. Gibson's Petition for Review[1] (Dkt. 1), appealing the Social Security Administration's final decision finding her not disabled and denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.[2] 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 21, 2014, Petitioner Zelta M. Gibson (“Petitioner”) protectively applied for Title II disability and disability insurance benefits and for Title XVI supplemental security income. (AR 20.) Petitioner alleged disability beginning March 28, 2014. (Id.) Her claims were denied initially on October 16, 2014 and then again on reconsideration on January 21, 2015. (Id.) On February 4, 2015, Petitioner timely filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Petitioner testified at a hearing held on October 17, 2016 in Boise, Idaho, as did impartial vocational expert Sara Statz. (Id.)

         On October 27, 2016, ALJ John C. Arkoosh 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 his decision. (AR 29-30.) Petitioner requested review from the Appeals Council, which granted her request for review on February 23, 2018 and gave her 30 days to send additional information about her case or to ask for an appearance. (AR 209.) Petitioner did not submit a statement or additional evidence. (AR 4.)

         On June 4, 2018, the Appeals Council issued a separate decision adopting some parts of the ALJ's decision. (AR 4-7.) In particular, the Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's statements regarding applicable law, the issues in the case, and the evidentiary facts. (AR 4.) It agreed with the ALJ's findings under steps one through three of the sequential evaluation, but it did not agree with the ALJ's finding at step four that Petitioner could perform past relevant work. (AR 4-5.) Although the ALJ did not make any findings at step five, the Appeals Council nonetheless made its own step-five findings based on the record before it. (AR 5-6.) Applying the Medical-Vocational Rules, the Appeals Council found that Petitioner had acquired transferrable skills from past relevant work and that such skills would require very little, if any, vocational adjustment to other occupations existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id.) Based on this finding, the Appeals Council found that Petitioner was not disabled at any time between her alleged onset date and the date of the ALJ decision. (AR 6-7.) The Appeals Council's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security in this matter.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner filed this case. She contends that “the denial of her disability claim is not supported by substantial evidence under the standards set forth by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and all other applicable laws and regulations, including the weight of the evidence, her credibility, the medical opinions of her doctors, and any and all other applicable evidentiary issues, both in law and in fact, and therefore the denial of her claim should be reversed or remanded for further administrative proceedings.” Pet. for Review 2 (Dkt. 1). Petitioner argues that (1) Respondent's finding that her skills are transferable to other work is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) Respondent's RFC determination is erroneous because she was found to suffer from severe mental impairments but her RFC does not include any mental limitations; and (3) Respondent's credibility finding is unsupported because Respondent failed to consider Petitioner's work history. See generally Pet'r's Mem. (Dkt. 16). Petitioner asks that the case be remanded for a further hearing. Id. at 20.

         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 Court is to review the record as a whole to decide whether it contains evidence that would allow a person of 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).

         The 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 is given to the ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act. See Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). However, this Court “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).[3]

         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 March 28, 2014 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 22.)

         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: “degenerative disc disease of the spine, hyperthyroidism, vertigo, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.” (AR 22.)

         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 23-25.)

         On review, the Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings for the first three steps of the analysis. (AR 4.)

         In the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ decides 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 made an RFC determination (AR 25) that the Appeals Council did not adopt. Rather, the Appeals Council found that Petitioner had the RFC to perform:

light work, except that the claimant can occasionally balance and climb ramps and stairs; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and avoid all exposure to workplace hazards, including unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts.

(AR 6.) Based on this RFC, the Appeals Council further found that Petitioner was not capable of performing any of her past relevant work. (AR 6.)

         In the fifth and final step, if it has been established that a claimant can no longer perform past relevant work because of her impairments, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant retains the ability to do alternate work and to demonstrate that such alternate work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Garrison v. Colvin,759 F.3d 995, 1011 (9th Cir. 2014). If the ...


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