Green v. Commissioner Social Security Administration
Opinion and Order. The Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's final decision is Affirmed and this case is Dismissed. Signed on 5/30/2017 by Judge Ann L. Aiken. (ck)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
SUSAN C. GREEN,
Case No. 6: 16-cv-00075-AA
OPINION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social
Aiken, District Judge:
Plaintiff, Susan C. Green, seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying
her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income
("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). This Court has jurisdiction
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Because the Commissioner's decision is based on
proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is
1 - OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI on April 18, 2009, alleging
disability beginning March 10, 2008. Tr. 463. Plaintiff was insured under Title II through
December 31, 2013. Tr. 465. Following a denial of benefits, plaintiff requested a hearing before
an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). On March 28, 2012, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not
disabled. Tr. 20. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's
decision final. Tr. 1-6.
Plaintiff then filed a Complaint to Review and Set Aside Decision in U.S. District Court
for the District of Oregon, where she requested that the Court review the administrative decision.
On June 11, 2014, the Court issued an Opinion, Order, and Judgment, which reversed the ALJ's
decision and remanded plaintiffs case for further proceedings.
instructed the ALJ to review and weigh the medical opinion evidence as well as plaintiffs
subjective complaints and residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The Court also directed the ALJ
to detennine whether plaintiff has any skills transferable to other work. Tr. 549.
Following the District Court's guidance, a new ALJ held a hearing to consider plaintiffs
claim on July 30, 2015. The ALJ issued a decision on September 25, 2015, finding that plaintiff
was not disabled under SSA through the last date insured. Tr. 474. The present appeal followed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on
proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).
Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla.
It means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to supp01i a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402
2 - OPINION AND ORDER
U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted).
In reviewing the
Commissioner's alleged enors, this court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and
detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." 1\!lartinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th
Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's
interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, the
reviewing court must defer to the ALJ's conclusion. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1198 (citing Andrews v.
Sha/ala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995)). A reviewing court, however, "cannot affirm the
Commissioner's decision on a ground that the Administration did not invoke in making its
decision." Stout v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation
omitted). Finally, a court may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an eiTor that is
harmless. Id. at 1055-56. "[T]he burden of showing that an enor is harmful n01mally falls upon
the party attacking the agency's determination." Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009).
The Commissioner evaluated plaintiffs allegation of disability pursuant to the relevant
five-step evaluation process. Tr. 466-468; See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g).
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity
during the period from her amended alleged onset date of August 6, 2011, through to her date
last insured of December 31, 2013. Tr. 466; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).
At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impainnents: Tarlov
cyst disease; status post for aminotomy and fenestration ofTarlov's cysts at S2-3; sacral
meningoceles; and mild lumbar disc desiccation. Tr. 466; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a), 416.925(a)
3 - OPINION AND ORDER
At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20
CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 467; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d). 416.925(d).
The ALJ then assessed plaintiffs RFC and found that through the date last insured,
plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in
20 CFR 404. l 567(b) except she can stand and walk two hours in an eight-hour
workday; can sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; needs the option to alternate
between sitting and standing at will while remaining on task; can occasionally
climb of [sic] ramps and stairs; but cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can
occasionally balance, bend, stoop, kneel, twist and turn; cannot crouch or crawl;
can occasionally reach overhead with the dominant right upper extremity; can
occasionally push and pull with the dominant right upper extremity; can have
occasional exposure to vibration; and no exposure to hazards such as unprotected
heights and moving mechanical parts. Tr. 468; 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(f),
The ALJ proceeded to step five, where the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to
demonstrate that the claimant is able to perform work that exists in the national economy, after
taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Relying on the testimony of the vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ
found that plaintiff had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferrable to
other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, specifically
occupations involving telephone sales or as an order clerk. Tr. 472-473. Accordingly, the ALJ
found that plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to give a clear and convincing reason
for rejecting plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony; (2) failing to give a clear and convincing
reasons for rejecting the opinion of Dr. McAndrew, the treating doctor; and (3) the
4 - OPINION AND ORDER
Commissioner did not meet her burden of proof that plaintiff retains the ability to perform other
work in the national economy. Pl.'s Br. 13.
Plaintiffs Subjective Symptom Testimony
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to atiiculate clear and convincing reasons,
supported by substantial evidence, for rejecting her subjective symptom statements concerning
the extent and severity of her impairments. Pl.'s Br. 14. The ALJ stated that plaintiff was not
credible because her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her
symptoms were inconsistent with the full record reviewed. Tr. 468-469.
When a claimant has medically documented impairments that could be reasonably
expected to produce some degree of the symptoms complained of, and the record contains no
affirmative evidence of malingering, "the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the
severity of ... symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so."
Smolen v. Cha/er, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). A general
assertion that the claimant is not credible is insufficient; the ALJ must "state which ... testimony
is not credible and what evidence suggests the complaints are not credible." Dodrill v. Shala/a,
12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). The reasons proffered must be "sufficiently specific to permit
the reviewing comi to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's
testimony." Orteza v. Shala/a, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal citation omitted).
A. Activities of Daily Living
Plaintiff argues that her activities are not inconsistent with disability. She argues that
call'ying on certain daily activities, such as grocery shopping, driving a car, or limited walking
for exercise, does not in any way detract from her credibility as to her overall disability. Pl.'s Br.
14-15. Further, she argues that though she may be able to engage in these activities despite the
5 - OPINION AND ORDER
pain she experiences that does not mean she could concentrate on work or engage in similar
activity for a longer period. Pl. 's Br. 15.
The ALJ found that plaintiff did not have limitation in her activities of daily living. Tr.
466. Plaintiff maintained her hygiene and self-care, independently went to church, drove, talked
with friends and family on the phone or by text daily, accompanied her husband grocery
shopping, was able to cook, Tr. 466, and went swimming when she visited California. Tr. 471.
Further, plaintiff did not struggle with concentration. Tr. 467. The ALJ noted that she had read
more books in the past two years than at any other time in her life. Id.
When looking at a claimant's functional limitations, an ALJ may consider the claimant's
daily activities, work record, and the observations of physicians and third parties with personal
knowledge about the claimant's functional limitations.
20 C.F.R 404.1512 §§ (b)(iii),
416.912(b)(iii). Further, when a claimant's daily activities "are transferable to a work setting" or
"contradict claims of a totally debilitating impairment," performance of those activities may
serve as a basis for discrediting a claimant. lvfolina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112-13 (9th Cir.
2012). If the "ALJ's credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the
comi] may not engage in second-guessing." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir.
2002) (internal citation omitted).
Here, the ALJ provided several specific examples of plaintiffs activities of daily living
that he reasonably found were not consistent with plaintiffs claims of disabling pain symptoms.
The ALJ' s finding is supported by substantial evidence and is a clear and convincing reason for
discrediting plaintiffs testimony.
6 - OPINION AND ORDER
B. Inconsistency with Objective Medical Record
Next, plaintiff argues that she continues to have pain despite her treatment and that her
allegations are consistent with the objective findings. Pl. 's Br. 15-16. Plaintiff contends that the
pain level she continues to experience, despite her treatment, is consistent with the objective
medical findings. She also argues that the Order of the Appeals Council rejected the idea that
plaintiff had not received the type of treatment that is expected of someone with similar
complaints. Pl.' s Br. 15. Finally, plaintiff avers that the ALJ failed to consider the side-effects
she experiences when she uses narcotic medication, which cause her to be fatigued during the
day and make mistakes on simple finance work. Pl.'s Br. 16.
The ALJ found that plaintiffs description of debilitating symptoms she experienced are
inconsistent with the record. Tr. 469. First, the ALJ noted that Dr. Daniel Rusu, plaintiffs pain
management specialist, reported plaintiff had normal active and passive range of motion, and
that her sensory examination was normal. Id. The ALJ also considered Dr. Raymond Nolan's
assessment noting that Dr. Nolan found that plaintiff had normal gait; she had the ability to sit
and stand without difficulty; she had the ability to tandem, toe and heel walk without difficulty;
and her squat rise maneuver was normal. kl at 470. Dr. Nolan concluded plaintiff was able to
cany 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she could stand and walk up to two
hours in an eight-hour workday; she could sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; and with
oppotiunity to change positions. Id.
Though the ALJ did not weigh Dr. McAndrew's testimony very heavily, he did note Dr.
McAndrew' s records, which showed that plaintiff was able to recover using minimal narcotic
medications within six to eight months of surgery and that she was able to control her chronic
7 - OPINION AND ORDER
pain symptoms with conservative management without epidural injections or other surgical
interventions. Tr. 469-470.
When reviewing a claim, the ALJ may consider objective medical evidence, the
claimant's treatment history, as well as any unexplained failure to seek treatment or follow a
prescribed course of treatment. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284. The ALJ may also infer a claimant's
pain is not as disabling as alleged when claimant repmts not seeking aggressive treatment and
not seeking an alternative treatment plan after discontinuing an effective medication due to mild
side effects. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (2008) (citing Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d
742, 750-51 (9th Cir. 2007)). While variable interpretation of this evidence may exist, when the
ALJ's analysis is nonetheless reasonable and it must be upheld. See, Batson, 359 F.3d at 1198. If
the "ALJ's credibility finding is suppmted by substantial evidence in the record, [the comt] may
not engage in second-guessing." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959.
Here, plaintiff complains of continuing pain even though she is seeking treatment,
however, the ALJ reasonably found that the objective medical records shows that plaintiff is able
to manage pain with a combination of prescribed medications or conservative medical treatment.
Tr. 470. Additionally, medical records indicated that plaintiff had a range of motion that was
only somewhat restricted and foll motor strength in all her extremities. Id. In sum, because the
ALJ's finding is reasonably supported by the objective medical evidence, there are clear and
convmcmg reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for rejecting plaintiffs subjective
8 - OPINION AND ORDER
Rejection of Dr. McAndrew's Medical Opinion, Plaintiffs Treating Doctor
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting
the opinions of Dr. McAndrew, her treating doctor. Pl.'s Br. 17. Specifically, the ALJ should
not have given greater weight to Dr. Nolan's opinion, an examining physician, because there is
no indication that Dr. Nolan reviewed any records, in contrast to Dr. McAndrew, the treating
physician. Pl.'s Br. 18.
While plaintiff avers that the Commissioner must provide clear and convincing reasons to
discredit Dr. McAndrew, defendant argues the ALJ need only give a specific and legitimate
reason for discrediting Dr. McAndrew's opinion. Def.'s Br. 8. To detennine which standard is
appropriate, this Court must first determine whether or not the examining doctor, Dr.
McAndrew, was contradicted. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (2014). If there is a
contradiction between the two doctors' opinions, then the ALJ may reject the treating physicians
opinions ifthere are specific and legitimate reasons to do so. Id.
After an independent review of the record, the Court finds there were contradicting
medical opinions. Here, Dr. McAndrew concluded that plaintiff could stand and walk less than
two hours in an eight-hour workday, she could sit for three hours maximum during an eight-hour
work day, and she could only occasionally lift ten pounds and never lift twenty pounds. Tr. 400.
However, Dr. Nolan found plaintiff could stand or walk up to two hours in an eight-hour
workday, plaintiff could sit for about six hour in an eight-hour work day, and plaintiff could lift
ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally.
Because of these
contradictions, the specific and legitimate standard is the appropriate standard.
Although the contrary opinion of a non-treating medical expe1t does not alone constitute
a specific, legitimate reason for rejecting a treating or examining physician's opinion, it may
9 - OPINION AND ORDER
constitute substantial evidence when it is consistent with other independent evidence in the
}vfagallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 752 (9th Cir. 1989).
In addition, it is well-
established that "the ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating
physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings."
Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957; see also Crane v. Shala/a, 76 F.3d 251, 253 (9th Cir. 1996) (ALJ may
"pennissibly reject ... check-off reports that [do] not contain any explanation of the bases of
their conclusions"). A specific and legitimate reason for rejecting a treating physician's opinions
is that it is based on a claimant's subjective complaints, which have previously been discredited
by the ALJ. See Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 605 (9th Cir. 1989); Morgan v. Comm'r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999).
Here, the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. McAndrew' s findings because Dr. McAndrew
failed to provide any explanation as to how he reached them and his opinions were not consistent
with the record as a whole. Tr. 471. Specifically, Dr. McAndrew's assessment of plaintiffs
functional limitations far exceeded what the objective evidence supports. Id. Instead, the ALJ
accepted the medical opinions of Dr. Rusu and specifically weighed Dr. Nolan's opinion more
heavily because he provided detailed explanations of plaintiffs abilities and limitations. In
contrast, the ALJ found Dr. McAndrew's medical opinions were based on plaintiffs subjective
complaints, which the ALJ reasonably found not credible, as discussed above.
provided a specific and legitimate reason for rejecting the opinion of Dr. McAndrew.
Accordingly, there is no error.
10 - OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiffs ability to perfo1m "other work" in the national economy
Finally, plaintiff argues the Commissioner did not meet her burden of proving that she
retains the ability to perform other work in the national economy. Pl.'s Br. 19. Essentially,
plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed in his RFC determination and his step-five analyses.
The ALJ found that plaintiff is no longer able to perfo1m her past relevant work but that
she has an RFC to perfom1 a limited range of light work. Tr. 473. Relying on the testimony of
the VE, the ALJ found that plaintiff had transfe1Table work skills such as "maintaining records,
completing sales forms, use of math, and use of computer skills." Tr. 472. As noted above, the
ALJ concluded plaintiff could work in telephone sales or as an order clerk. Tr. 473. Plaintiff
continues to aver that if the opinions of Dr. McAndrew and the statements of plaintiff were
properly credited by the ALJ, then he would have been compelled to make a finding of disability.
As discussed above, the opinions of plaintiff and Dr. McAndrew were reasonably
weighed and discredited by the ALJ. Accordingly, plaintiffs argument, which is contingent
upon a finding of harmful error in regard to the issues discussed above, is without merit. The
ALJ reasonably assessed plaintiffs RFC and step-five analyses based upon the limitations
supported by the record. This court finds no el1'or in the ALJ' s overall assessment.
11 - OPINION AND ORDER
Because the Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported
by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this case is
IT IS SO ORDERED .
DATED this i/V day of May 2017.
United States District Judge
12 - OPINION AND ORDER
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