Price v. Colvin
ORDER denying 16 Social Security Opening Brief. IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch on 6/5/2017. (NOS)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA
RYAN SJ PRICE,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
Plaintiff Ryan Price brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking
judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his
application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income
under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, §§
1381-1383(c). Price alleges disability since September 1, 2000, due to a
schizoaffective disorder and other mental impairments. After Price’s applications
were denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On June 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision
finding Price not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council
denied Price’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the agency’s final
decision for purposes of judicial review. Jurisdiction vests with this Court
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Price was 32 years old at the time of his alleged onset date, and 48 years old
at the time of the ALJ’s decision.
Standard of Review
This Court’s review is limited. The Court may set aside the Commissioner’s
decision only where the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or where
the decision is based on legal error. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1
(9th Cir. 2005); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). 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);
Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006).
“The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in
medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d
1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). This Court must uphold the Commissioner’s findings
“if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Batson v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir.
2004). “[I]f evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation,” the
Court “must defer to the Commissioner’s decision.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193
(citing Morgan v. Commissioner, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). This Court
“may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Widmark, 454
F.3d at 1070 (quoting Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1156).
Burden of Proof
To establish disability, a claimant bears “the burden of proving an ‘inability
to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which...has lasted or can be expected
to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.’” Batson, 359 F.3d at
1193-94 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a
five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears
the burden of establishing disability at steps one through four of this process.
Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). At the first step, the ALJ
will consider whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I). If not, the ALJ must determine at step two whether the
claimant has any impairments that qualify as “severe” under the regulations. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the ALJ finds that the claimant does have one or
more severe impairments, the ALJ will compare those impairments to the
impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the ALJ
finds at step three that the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a listed
impairment, then the claimant is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
If, however, the claimant’s impairments do not meet or equal
the severity of any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments, then the
ALJ must proceed to step four and consider whether the claimant retains the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant establishes an inability to engage in
past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to establish that the
claimant can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §
The ALJ found at step one that Price met the insured status requirements of
the Act through September 30, 2000. The ALJ further found that Price had
engaged in substantial gainful activity during the first quarter of 2013, but not for
12 consecutive months before or after. (Doc. 15-2, at 20). At step two, the ALJ
found that Price had the following severe impairments: schizoaffective disorder,
depression, and personality disorder. (Doc. 15-2, at 20. ). The ALJ concluded at
step three that Price did not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that met or medically equaled any impairment described in the Listing of
Impairments. (Doc. 15-2, at 21). The ALJ found that Price’s subjective testimony
was not entirely credible, and determined that he had the residual functional
capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with several
nonexertional limitations. (Doc. 15-2, at 22). Based on that residual functional
capacity assessment, the ALJ found at step four that Price could perform past
relevant work as a stocker. (Doc. 15-2, at 31). The ALJ made alternative findings
at step five, concluding that Price was also capable of working as a commercial
cleaner, laundry worker, or document preparer. (Doc. 15-2, at 32).
Price argues the ALJ did not provide sufficiently clear and convincing
reasons for finding his subjective testimony only partially believable.
If the ALJ finds “the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of
an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain
or other symptoms alleged,” and “there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can
reject the claimant’s testimony about the severity of [those] symptoms only by
offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Lingenfelter v.
Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citations
omitted). Price met this initial burden because he provided evidence that he has
underlying mental impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce some
symptoms, and the ALJ did not find that he was malingering.
Price testified he has been hearing voices in his head since 1992. (Doc. 155, at 168). He said that he hears voices daily, and that the voices interfere with his
daily activities. (Doc. 15-5, at 170). Price explained that he was discharged from
a job with Home Depot in 2013 because he was watching too much YouTube at
the direction of the voices in his head. (Doc. 15-5, at 167). Price reported that his
daily activities include going to the library, using the computer, reading, job
hunting, and household chores like vacuuming and washing dishes. (Doc. 15-3, at
46, 48). He indicated that the voices make it difficult for him to concentrate,
accomplish daily activities, and write or speak coherently. (Doc. 15-3, at 110126).
The ALJ considered Price’s testimony but found him only partially credible
for several reasons. To begin with, although the ALJ did not affirmatively find
that Price was malingering, she noted there were reports from treating sources who
questioned whether he was exaggerating his symptoms or engaging in drug
seeking behavior. (15-2, at 28). In a psychological evaluation from February
2006, for example, a psychologist wrote that Price was “anxious to please, offering
exaggerations of symptoms he thinks we may be looking for.” (Doc. 15-4, at 63).
During a September 2012 psychiatric assessment, Price explained he had
previously been accused of malingering and drug seeking, and in January 2013 an
examining nurse practitioner observed that “a workup from the Montana State
Hospital had debated whether or not he was malingering in symptoms.” (Doc. 154, at 68, 74). The ALJ reasonably questioned Price’s credibility in part because he
had a history of possible malingering.
The ALJ next found that certain discrepancies between Price’s statements as
to the severity of his auditory hallucinations and the observations of his mental
health care providers undermined his credibility. In particular, the ALJ noted that
while Price complained of having frequent invasive auditory hallucinations,
during mental status examinations he had not been observed responding to any
internal stimuli. (Doc. 15-2, at 28). In March and April 2014, for example, Price
reported having chronic auditory hallucinations but during his examinations he did
not appear to be responding to any internal stimuli. (Doc. 15-2, at 25; 15-4, at
108; 15-5, at 20). The ALJ permissibly found Price’s statements as to the severity
and frequency of his auditory hallucinations less than entirely credible in part
based on the fact that his mental health care providers did not observe him
responding to internal stimuli.
The ALJ further found that when Price was compliant with his prescribed
medication, his symptoms responded well to treatment. (Doc. 15-2, at 28). The
ALJ recognized that Price had been admitted for psychiatric treatment several
times, but found it significant that he consistently “stabilized remarkably quickly,”
particularly given his allegations as to the severity of his symptoms on admission.
(Doc. 15-2, at 28). By way of example, the ALJ discussed the fact that Price
presented to the emergency room in March 2014, stating that he was psychotic,
having auditory hallucinations, and needed help for his serious mental illness.
Price did well after he was admitted, and did not show any mood or psychotic
symptoms. He was discharged three days later after it was determined that he did
not need ongoing inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. (Doc. 15-5, at 58-59). The
record further reflects that Price’s symptoms improved on medication, but that he
was not always compliant.. (Doc. 15-5, at 34). The ALJ reasonably found that
Price’s statements regarding the severity of his psychiatric symptoms were not
entirely credible in part because the record showed his symptoms improved with
treatment, and was not always compliant with his medication. See Tommasetti v.
Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008); Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 25, 638 (9th
Finally, the ALJ found the fact that Price’s activities were not entirely
consistent with his allegations of disabling symptoms. The ALJ pointed out that
Price engaged in a full range of daily activities and volunteered a local theater in a
somewhat public capacity, which suggested a higher level of functioning that he
claimed. These were sufficiently clear and convincing reasons for finding Price’s
subjective testimony only partially believable.
Medical Expert Testimony
Clinical psychologist Dr. Monty Kuka testified as a medical expert at the
administrative hearing. He stated that Price “often has difficulties with his
paranoid ideas and distractability due to voices,” and recommended that Price not
work with the public and work “in a relatively isolated environment that does not
have a lot of activity or distractions.” (Doc. 15-5, at 87). Price argues the ALJ
erred by failing to incorporate the limitations identified by Dr. Kuka into the
residual functional capacity assessment and corresponding hypothetical to the
“The ALJ is responsible for translating the claimant’s medical conditions
into functional limitations” in the residual functional capacity assessment, which
“is sufficient if it is ‘consistent with restrictions identified in the medical
testimony.’” Chapman ex rel. Sanders v. Commissioner Social Sec. Admin., 2014
WL 4102242 *7 (D. Ore. Aug. 18, 2014) (quoting Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue, 539
F.3d 1169, 1174 (9th Cir. 2008)).
Contrary to Price’s argument, the ALJ adequately accounted for Dr. Kuka’s
testimony. The ALJ expressly considered Dr. Kuka’s testimony and stated that
she was giving it great weight. (Doc. 15-2, at 30). In the residual functional
capacity assessment, the ALJ limited Price to unskilled work, and “to jobs that
require no more than occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers, but
no work in tandem with supervisors and co-workers.” (Doc. 15-2, at 22). She
further specified that Price could have no interaction with the public, could
tolerate only occasional changes in the routine work setting, was limited to no
more than occasional decision making and judgments required for unskilled work,
and could not work at a fixed production rate but would be able to do goal
oriented work. (Doc. 15-2, at 22-23). The ALJ reasonably interpreted Dr. Kuka’s
testimony and translated it into the nonexertional limitations set forth above, and
her assessment of the evidence is entitled to deference.
Price argues the ALJ erred at step three by finding that he did not satisfy the
criteria for presumptive disability under Listing 12.03 for schizophrenia, paranoid,
and other psychotic disorders, Listing 12.04 for affective disorders, or Listing
12.08 for personality and impulse control disorders. At this third step in the
sequential evaluation process, the ALJ must consider whether the claimant’s
impairment, or combination of impairments, meets or equals an impairment listed
in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. “If the claimant meets or equals one of the
listed impairments, a conclusive presumption of disability applies.” Marcia v.
Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990).
To meet the requirements of a listing, the claimant “must have a medically
determinable impairment(s) that satisfies all of the criteria in the listing.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1525(d). To demonstrate medical equivalence, the claimant must
have impairments, considered alone or in combination, that are “at least equal in
severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.
1526(a). The Ninth Circuit has made clear that the “ALJ must evaluate the
relevant evidence before concluding that a claimant’s impairments do not meet or
equal a listed impairment.” Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 505, 512 (9th Cir. 2001).
Nevertheless, the burden remains with the claimant, who must present medical
evidence that his impairments meet or medically equal all of the criteria of a listed
impairment. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990).
Listing 12.03, 12.04, and 12.08 require that a claimant’s impairments satisfy
at least two of the following B criteria: marked restrictions of activities of daily
living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in
maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of
decompensation each of extended duration. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, Appendix
1, §§ 12.03, 12.04, 12.08. Episodes of decompensation are “exacerbations or
temporary increases in symptoms or signs accompanied by a loss of adaptive
functioning.” Id. at 12.00(C)(4). The term “repeated episodes of decompensation,
each of extended duration,” means three episodes within one year, or an average of
once every four months, each lasting for at least two weeks. Id.
The ALJ considered each of these three listings, but found that Price
satisfied only one of the B criteria. She found that Price had marked difficulties in
social functioning, but that his mental impairments caused no restrictions in
activities of daily living and only moderate difficulties with regard to
concentration, persistence or pace. (Doc. 15-2, at 21). The ALJ further found that
Price had experienced one to two episodes of decompensation, each of extended
duration. (Doc. 15-2, at 21).
Price does not challenge the ALJ’s first three findings, and instead focuses
exclusively on the fourth. He argues the ALJ’s finding that he had experienced
only one or two episodes of decompensation of extended duration is not consistent
with Dr. Kuka’s testimony. According to Price, Dr. Kuka testified that Price’s
several brief hospitalizations could be considered episodes of decompensation of
extended duration because “for most people the period of time leading up to
hospitalization involves at least a week or two” so he “give[s] a little leeway on
that.” (Doc. 15-5, at 186). Price maintains that “if a week or two leeway was
added “to each of his brief hospitalizations, he would satisfy the B criteria. (Doc.
16, at 32).
But Dr. Kuka clearly testified that in his opinion, Price had experienced
only one period of decompensation of extended duration. Dr. Kuka agreed that
“we can count the nine-day hospitalization as an episode of decompensation,” but
Price’s “other hospitalizations that tend to be three or four days in length” do not
qualify “so I would just call that one.” (Doc. 15-5, at 185-86). Giving Price the
benefit of the doubt, the ALJ found based on Dr. Kuka’s testimony and the
evidence of record that Price had experienced “one to two” episodes of
decompensation of extended duration. (Doc. 15-2, at 21). The ALJ did not
misconstrue Dr. Kuka’s testimony, and her finding that Price had not experienced
three or more episodes of decompensation of extended duration within one year
was supported by substantial evidence.
Listings 12.03 and 12.04 also have alternative paragraph C criteria. A
claimant may satisfy the C criteria by demonstrating a medically documented
history of the applicable mental disorder (at least two years in duration) that has
more than minimally limited the claimant’s ability to do basic work activities and
one of the following (1) repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended
duration; (2) a residual disease process that results in decompensation with even a
minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment; or (3) current
history of at least one year of inability to function outside a highly supportive
living arrangement. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 12.03 & 12.04.
With the exception of his argument that the ALJ erred by finding he had not
experienced repeated episodes of decompensation, Price does not claim to meet
any of the C criteria, and Dr. Kuka testified that he “did not see that the C criteria
would apply in this case.” (Doc. 15-5, at 186). As discussed above, the ALJ’s
finding that Price had not experience repeated episodes of decompensation lasting
for an extended period is supported by substantial evidence. Price does not point
to evidence demonstrating that any of the remaining C criteria are satisfied here.
The Court thus concludes that the ALJ’s step-three analysis is supported by
substantial evidence and free of error.
IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
DATED this 5th day of June, 2017
Jeremiah C. Lynch
United States Magistrate Judge
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