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Reynolds v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent,


          Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Robert Allen Meeks Reynolds's, on behalf of Crystal Lynn Reynolds (deceased), [1] 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:


         On 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.

         On 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.

         Having 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).


         To be 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).

         “Substantial 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, 565 (1988).

         As to 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).

         As to 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).


         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 (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 Security Act.

         The 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).

         The 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).

         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. 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).

         The 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.

(AR 33).

         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. 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 20).

         B. Analysis

         1. The ALJ Reasonably Evaluated the Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ 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).

         Here, 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.

         a. Rox Burkett, M.D.

         On 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 14.09C ...

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