McDonald v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

Filing 18

ORDER: The ALJ's decision is AFFIRMED. The Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly and terminate this case. Signed by Judge Douglas L Rayes on 5/7/2024. (KJ)

Download PDF
1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 Amanda Lynn McDonald, Plaintiff, 10 11 v. 12 Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 13 No. CV-22-08164-PCT-DLR ORDER Defendant. 14 15 16 On January 12, 2020, Plaintiff Amanda Lynn McDonald applied for supplemental 17 security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”), alleging a 18 disability onset date of February 21, 1992 (later amended to the protective filing date of 19 January 15, 2020). (AR. 259, 71–72.) Plaintiff’s claim was denied initially and on 20 reconsideration. (AR. 142–50, 154–60.) After an administrative hearing, an Administrative 21 Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision on September 7, 2021, finding Plaintiff 22 not disabled. (AR. 24–35.) The Appeals Council denied review of that decision, making 23 the ALJ’s determination the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security 24 Administration. (AR. 1–4.) Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner’s decision pursuant 25 to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons herein, the Court affirms. 26 I. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION 27 To determine whether a claimant is disabled under the SSA, an ALJ must follow a 28 five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof 1 at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. 2 Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). 3 At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial, 4 gainful work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, then the claimant is not 5 disabled, and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant 6 has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. 7 § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If she does not, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step three, the 8 ALJ considers whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or 9 is medically equivalent to an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. 10 Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is disabled. Id. If not, then the 11 ALJ proceeds to step four, where the ALJ assesses the claimant’s residual functional 12 capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is capable of performing her past 13 relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform her past 14 work, then she is not disabled. Id. If she cannot perform her past work, the ALJ proceeds 15 to the fifth and final step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform 16 any other work in the national economy based on her age, work experience, education, and 17 RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If not, then claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits 18 under the SSA. Id. 19 II. JUDICIAL REVIEW 20 The Court only reviews the issues raised by the party challenging an ALJ’s decision. 21 See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court will uphold an ALJ’s 22 decision “unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. 23 Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere 24 scintilla but less than a preponderance” and is such that “a reasonable mind might accept 25 as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 26 (9th Cir. 2005)). As a general rule, if the “evidence is susceptible to more than one rational 27 interpretation,” the Court will affirm the ALJ’s decision. Id. The Court should “consider 28 -2- 1 the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of 2 supporting evidence.” Id. 3 III. DISCUSSION 4 Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s RFC 5 determination that Plaintiff can perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 6 § 416.967(b). In assessing a claimant’s RFC, an ALJ is required to “consider all of [a 7 claimant’s] medically determinable impairments . . . , including [those] that are not 8 ‘severe.’” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(2). To determine the total limiting effects of a claimant’s 9 impairment(s) and any related symptoms, the ALJ considers all the medical and 10 nonmedical evidence, as well as the intensity and persistence of symptoms. Id. 11 §§ 416.945(e), 416.929(c). The ALJ then assesses a claimant’s ability to meet the physical, 12 mental, sensory, and other requirements of work. Id. § 416.945(a)(4). 13 Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly relying on a “stale” medical 14 opinion regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments instead of obtaining further opinion 15 evidence; (2) failing to consider Plaintiff’s mental health impairments beyond step two; 16 and (3) failing to include RFC limitations for Plaintiff’s migraine headaches. The Court 17 disagrees. 18 19 A. The ALJ’s RFC determination that Plaintiff has no functional mental limitations is rational and supported by substantial evidence. 20 Before determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff has the following 21 medically determinable mental impairments: bipolar disorder, attention deficit 22 hyperactivity disorder, personality disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, post- 23 traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol abuse and drug abuse in reported partial remission. 24 (AR. 30.) Considering these impairments singularly and in combination with one another, 25 the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s impairments did not cause more than minimal limitations in 26 her ability to perform basic mental work activities and therefore were non-severe. The ALJ 27 also noted that Plaintiff had only mild limitations in each of the four broad functional areas 28 of mental functioning (AR. 31.) -3- 1 At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has an RFC to perform light work 2 with no functional mental limitations. In doing so, the ALJ noted that he found Dr. Shelton, 3 Dr. Galluci, and Dr. Fair’s opinions regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments to be mostly 4 persuasive. (AR. 33.) 5 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied on Dr. Shelton’s “stale” consultative 6 opinion from 2016 and instead should have obtained further opinion evidence before 7 formulating the RFC. (Doc. 14 at 10–11.) Plaintiff points to specific treatment records that 8 she contends demonstrate her mental limitations and that the ALJ should have relied on. 9 (Id. at 11.) Plaintiff also contends that ALJ’s failure to ask the vocational expert any 10 hypothetical questions relating to Plaintiff’s mental limitations demonstrates that the ALJ 11 did not consider Plaintiff’s mental impairments beyond step two of the evaluation, thereby 12 contravening SSA regulations. (Id. at 11–14.) 13 Starting with Dr. Shelton’s opinion: the Court finds that any error in the ALJ’s 14 evaluation of Dr. Shelton’s opinion is harmless because the ALJ’s determination that 15 Plaintiff has no functional mental limitation is rational and supported by substantial 16 evidence. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (holding that error is 17 harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision, and the error 18 “is inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination”). Plaintiff is correct that 19 where an ALJ bases a claimant’s RFC entirely on the stale opinions of non-examining 20 physicians, the ALJ commits error. See Huerta v. Astrue, No. 13-CV-01210-WHO, 2014 21 WL 1866427, at *16 (N.D. Cal. May 8, 2014) (granting remand where ALJ primarily relied 22 on a stale RFC from a non-examining consultant and improperly discounted the opinions 23 of claimant’s treating and examining physicians). But that is not what occurred here. In 24 addition to Dr. Shelton’s opinion, the ALJ relied on Plaintiff’s examination records, her 25 daily activities, and the opinions of state agency doctors from 2020 in finding that 26 Plaintiff’s mental impairments warrant no additional functional limitations in the RFC. 27 Indeed, Plaintiff’s more recent mental examinations, including from August of 28 2020, note that Plaintiff presents as alert, oriented, and cooperative; has intact cognition -4- 1 and good judgment and insight; denies depression and reports mild anxiety. (See e.g., AR. 2 419–20, 422, 444–46.) Plaintiff’s daily activities include managing her own finances, 3 preparing her own meals, interactions with others, reading, writing poetry, fishing, 4 camping, and tending to her own personal care. (See e.g., AR. 323.) As to the state agency 5 medical consultants, Dr. Galluci and Dr. Fair, both of whom evaluated Plaintiff’s records 6 after her amended alleged onset date, found that Plaintiff had no severe mental 7 impairments. (AR. 112–13, 131–32.) 8 Thus, it was rational for the ALJ to conclude that Plaintiff’s mental impairments did 9 not translate into functional limitations, and this conclusion is supported by substantial 10 evidence. See Rania v. Kijakazi, No. 2:20-cv-01541, 2021 WL 5771663, at *3 (E.D. Cal. 11 Dec. 6. 2021) (“While [SSA] regulations require the ALJ to consider the effect of all 12 [claimant’s] impairments in formulating the RFC, they do not require [the ALJ] to translate 13 every non-severe impairment into a functional limitation in the RFC.”); see also Woods v. 14 Kijakazi, 32 F.4th 785, 794 (9th Cir. 2022) (rejecting plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ was 15 required to include mild mental limitations in the RFC determination). Moreover, although 16 Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s RFC determination, Plaintiff does not identify what 17 functional mental limitations should have been included or how those limitations would 18 have affected the ultimate disability determination. Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111 (holding that 19 “burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the 20 agency’s determination”). 21 Additionally, the Court does not find that the ALJ failed to properly develop the 22 record.1 “An ALJ’s duty to develop the record further is triggered only when there is 23 ambiguous evidence or when the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the 24 evidence.” Mayes v. Massanari, 276 P.3d 453, 459–60 (9th Cir. 2001). Plaintiff has not 25 established how the record is ambiguous or inadequate. Instead, Plaintiff points out that 26 “there are no treating opinions in the record.” (Doc. 14 at 8). But it is Plaintiff’s burden to 27 28 1 Defendant contends that Plaintiff forfeited this argument by affirming to the ALJ at the administrative hearing that the record was complete and that the case was ready for the ALJ’s review and decision. (Doc. 16 at 5–6.) The Court need not reach whether Plaintiff forfeited this argument because, as explained, the ALJ properly developed the record. -5- 1 present evidence of disability, and she submitted no such opinions. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a) 2 (“[Y]ou have to prove to us that you are . . . disabled.”). What’s more, “the mere absence 3 of a report from a treating or examining physician does not give rise to a duty to develop 4 the record; instead, that duty is triggered only where there is an inadequacy or ambiguity.” 5 Smith v. Saul, No. 1:19-cv-01085-SKO, 2020 WL 6305830, at *7 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 28, 2020); 6 see also Alvarez v. Astrue, No. 1:08-cv-01205-SMS, 2009 WL 2500494, *10 (E.D. Cal. 7 Aug. 14, 2009) (finding that absence of opinion from treating physician did not give rise 8 to ALJ’s duty to develop the record because the record contained opinions of state agency 9 physicians and plaintiff’s treatment records). 10 Last, the Court does not find the ALJ’s decision not to ask the vocational expert a 11 hypothetical question to be harmful error. At step five of the sequential evaluation, an ALJ 12 may determine whether there is other work that exists in “significant numbers” in the 13 national economy that the claimant can perform either by relying on the testimony of a 14 vocational expert or by referencing the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at 20 C.F.R. pt. 15 404, subpt. P, app. 2. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1101 (9th Cir. 1999). 16 The Guidelines present, in table form, a short-hand method for determining the availability and numbers of suitable jobs for a claimant. These tables are commonly known as “the grids.” . . . 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 The Commissioner’s need for efficiency justifies use of the grids at step five where they completely and accurately represent a claimant’s limitations. In other words, a claimant must be able to perform the full range of jobs in a given category, i.e., sedentary work, light work, or medium work. ... [However,] [a] non-exertional impairment, if sufficiently severe, may limit the claimant’s functional capacity in ways not contemplated by the guidelines. In such a case, the guidelines would be inapplicable. . . . The ALJ may rely on the grids alone to show the availability of jobs for the claimant “only when the grids accurately and completely describe the claimant’s abilities and limitations.” Id. at 1101–02 (cleaned up). 27 Here, rather than relying on a vocational expert, the ALJ used the “grids” to 28 determine that based on Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC for the full -6- 1 range of light work, Plaintiff is not disabled. Though the use of the grids is improper where 2 a claimant’s RFC includes significant non-exertional limitations, here the ALJ rationally 3 found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of light work with no functional 4 mental limitations. As such, the grids completely and accurately represent Plaintiff’s 5 limitations, and so the ALJ’s reliance on the grids was proper. See Alvarado v. Astrue, No. 6 EDCV 08-116 JC, 2009 WL 764531, at *8 (C.D. Cal. March 19, 2009) (finding ALJ’s 7 reliance on grids was proper where plaintiff’s non-exertional limitations did not 8 significantly limit the range of light exertional work). 9 B. The ALJ rationally concluded that Plaintiff’s migraines did not warrant 10 additional limitations in her RFC, which is supported by substantial 11 evidence. 12 Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to provide a substantive discussion 13 of Plaintiff’s migraines and their limiting effect and failing to include corresponding 14 limitations in the RFC. (Doc. 14 at 14–16.) The Court disagrees. 15 The ALJ expressly addressed Plaintiff’s migraines in making his assessment. The 16 ALJ noted that despite claiming disabling migraines, Plaintiff can perform daily activities 17 of reading, writing poetry, and listening to music. (AR. 30.) The ALJ also found Plaintiff’s 18 testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms to be inconsistent with other evidence in 19 the record, so the ALJ discounted her subjective complaints, which Plaintiff does not 20 challenge. (AR. 32) Given Plaintiff’s daily activities and that no consultative medical 21 expert opined a limitation associated with her migraines (see e.g., AR. 112–17, 131-36), 22 the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff’s migraines did not warrant additional functional 23 limitations. The Court finds this to be rational and supported by substantial evidence. 24 Though Plaintiff advocates for a more favorable reading of the evidence, the Court cannot 25 second guess the ALJ’s reasonable interpretation of the record. 26 27 In sum, the Court finds no harmful error and the ALJ’s RFC determination to be rational and supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, 28 -7- 1 2 3 IT IS ORDERED that the ALJ’s decision is AFFIRMED. The Clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly and terminate this case. Dated this 7th day of May, 2024. 4 5 6 7 8 Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 -8-

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?