United States District Court, D. Idaho
ROBERT ALLEN MEEKS REYNOLDS, O/B/O CRYSTAL LYNN REYNOLDS, Petitioner,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent,
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge
before the Court is Petitioner Robert Allen Meeks
Reynolds's, on behalf of Crystal Lynn Reynolds
(deceased),  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 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:
April 7, 2014, Petitioner Crystal Lynn Reynolds
(“Petitioner”) protectively filed an application
for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging
disability beginning March 30, 2014. This claim was initially
denied on July 23, 2014 and, again, on reconsideration on
October 22, 2014. On October 26, 2014, Petitioner timely
filed a Request for Hearing. On May 25, 2016, Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) Stephen Marchioro held a
hearing in Boise, Idaho, at which time Petitioner,
represented by attorney Brad D. Parkinson, appeared and
testified. Impartial vocational expert Cassie Mills also
appeared and testified.
November 25, 2016, 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
March 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Petitioner's
Request for Review, making final the ALJ's Decision.
exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely
filed the instant action, arguing generally that “[t]he
conclusions and findings of fact of the [Respondent] are not
supported by substantial evidence and are contrary to law and
regulation.” Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Dkt. 1).
Specifically, Petitioner claims that (1) the ALJ's Step 3
determination is in error because he failed to appropriately
consider whether Petitioner's impairments equal Listings
14.09(C) and 1.02(B); and (2) the ALJ's RFC determination
is unsupported by substantial evidence where, after failing
to fully credit the opinion of consulting examiner, Dr. Sant,
he also failed to explain why he incorporated only certain
portions of his opined limitations into [Petitioner]'s
RFC while rejecting others that would be disabling.
See Pet.'s Brief, pp. 1, 12-20 (Dkt. 17).
Petitioner therefore requests that the Court either reverse
the ALJ's Decision and find that she is entitled to
Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits or,
alternatively, remand the case for further proceedings and
award attorneys' fees. See id.; see
also Pet. for Review, p. 2 (Dkt. 1).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
evidence” is 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,
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).
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).
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. §§
404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social
first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant
is engaged in substantial gainful activity
(“SGA”). See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is defined as work
activity that is both substantial and gainful.
“Substantial work activity” is work activity that
involves doing significant physical or mental activities.
See 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.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b).
If the claimant has engaged in SGA, disability benefits are
denied, regardless of how severe her physical/mental
impairments are and regardless of her age, education, and
work experience. See 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 30, 2014 through her date last insured of June
30, 2015.” (AR 30).
second step requires a determination of whether the claimant
has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of
impairments, that is severe and meets the duration
requirement. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or
combination of impairments is “severe” if it
significantly limits an individual's 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” when medical and other evidence
establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of
slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal
effect on an individual's ability to work. See
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. If there is no
severe medically determinable impairment or combination of
impairments, benefits are denied. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found
that Petitioner has the following severe impairments:
“obesity; spine disorder of neurofibromatosis with
dystrophic scoliosis of the thoracic spine, status post
fusion surgery; and thoracic meningocele, status post
reduction surgery.” (AR 30).
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. See 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. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the
claimant's impairments neither meet nor equal one of the
listed impairments, the claimant's case cannot be
resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step
four. See id. Here, the ALJ concluded that
Petitioner's above-listed impairments, while severe, do
not meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination,
the criteria established for any of the qualifying
impairments. See (AR 31-32).
fourth step of the sequential process requires the ALJ to
determine whether the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) is sufficient for the claimant
to perform past relevant work. See 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 (including impairments that are not severe).
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. On
this point, the ALJ concluded:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that, throughout the date last insured, the
claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform a
reduced range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(a). She could never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, but could occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She
could occasionally balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl.
She could occasionally reach overhead and push/pull
bilaterally with the upper extremities. She had to avoid all
exposure to excessive vibrations, all use of unguarded moving
mechanical parts, and all exposure to unprotected heights.
She needed the ability to alternate between sitting and
standing, sitting for 45 minutes and then standing up to 45
minutes while remaining at workstation. She could
occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally.
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. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v),
404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see also Matthews v.
Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 681 (9th Cir. 1993). Here, the ALJ
found that Petitioner could not perform her past relevant
work as a shift lead and/or telephone representative.
See (AR 39). However, considering Petitioner's
age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that
exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she
can perform, including information clerk, document preparer,
and ticket counter worker. See (AR 39-40).
Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner “was not
under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at
any time from March 30, 2014, the alleged onset date,
throughout June 30, 2015, the date last insured.” (AR
The ALJ Reasonably Evaluated the Opinion Evidence
is responsible for resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the
medical testimony. See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750.
While the medical opinion of a treating physician is entitled
to special consideration and weight, it is not necessarily
conclusive. See Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759,
761 (9th Cir. 1989). If the treating
physician's opinions are not contradicted by another
doctor, they may be rejected only for clear and convincing
reasons. See Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211,
1216 (9th Cir. 2005); Lester v. Chater,
81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Even if the
treating physician's opinions are contradicted by another
doctor, they can only be rejected if the ALJ provides
specific and legitimate reasons for doing so, supported by
substantial evidence in the record. See id. A lack
of objective medical findings, treatment notes, and rationale
to support a treating physician's opinions is a
sufficient reason for rejecting that opinion. See
Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th
Cir. 2012); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144,
1149 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the ALJ may
discount physicians' opinions based on internal
inconsistencies, inconsistencies between their opinions and
other evidence in the record, or other factors the ALJ deems
material to resolving ambiguities. See Morgan v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601-02
(9th Cir. 1999).
Petitioner takes issue with the ALJ's analyses at steps
three and four of the sequential process - contending, in
particular, that the ALJ erred because (1) he failed to
consider whether her impairments equal Listings 14.09(C) and
1.02(B), and (2) his RFC determination is unsupported by
substantial evidence. See Pet.'s Brief, pp. 1,
12-20 (Dkt. 17). Both arguments rely on the opinions of
certain of Petitioner's medical providers (namely, Rox
Burkett, M.D., and Michael O. Sant, M.D.) and, likewise, the
ALJ's consideration of those opinions. With this in mind,
the Court initially addresses these predicate aspects below.
Rox Burkett, M.D.
August 10, 2016, non-examining consultant, Dr. Burkett,
opined that Petitioner's impairments meet or equal a
Listing, stating in relevant part:
With careful analysis it is recognized the claimant has
severe, listing level spinal problems either alone in the T
spine or in combination with the meningocele (dura sac that
lines the spinal cord and extrudes into the chest cavity). It
is noted by the treating neurosurgeon this could be life
threatening. She has done all she could with surgery,
followed up with physical therapy but with the severity of
BOTH the scoliosis and the kyphosis and the meningocele she
reasonably meets or equals several listings specifically