Spence v. Commissioner of Social Security

Filing 18

ORDER signed by Magistrate Judge Grady J Leupold. The Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED, and this case is DISMISSED. (GMR)

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Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 1 of 9 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT TACOMA 8 9 10 TAMARA S., Plaintiff, 11 12 13 14 15 CASE NO. 3:22-cv-05745-GJL ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant. 16 17 This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed. R. Civ. P. 73 and Local 18 Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13. See also Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate 19 Judge, Dkt. 2. This matter has been fully briefed. See Dkts. 11, 14, 15. 20 After considering and reviewing the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law 21 Judge (“ALJ”) did not err in finding Plaintiff not disabled. The Court accordingly AFFIRMS the 22 Commissioner’s final decision in this matter. 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 1 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 2 of 9 1 2 I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY Plaintiff’s application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits pursuant to 42 3 U.S.C. § 1382(a) (Title XVI) of the Social Security Act was denied initially and, again, 4 following reconsideration. Administrative Record (“AR”) 96, 107. After briefly appearing at a 5 hearing on October 8, 2019, and requesting a postponement, AR 37-46, Plaintiff’s requested 6 hearing was held before the ALJ on September 15, 2020. AR 47-65. 7 On November 3, 2020, the ALJ issued a written decision in which the ALJ concluded 8 that Plaintiff was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act. AR 118-37. The Appeals 9 Council vacated and remanded the case because the ALJ did not consider certain evidence 10 regarding Plaintiff’s alleged physical impairments and poorly articulated the residual function 11 capacity (“RFC”) finding. AR 139-40; Dkt. 11 at 3. 12 Plaintiff attended a third hearing on January 27, 2022. AR 66-95. The ALJ issued a 13 decision on March 23, 2022, again concluding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 12-36. On 14 September 8, 2022, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the written 15 decision by the ALJ the final agency decision subject to judicial review. AR 1-6. On October 5, 16 2022, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s written 17 decision. Dkt. 5. Defendant filed the sealed AR regarding this matter on January 9, 2023. Dkt. 9. 18 19 II. BACKGROUND Plaintiff was born in 1967 and was 50 years old on the alleged date of disability onset of 20 April 24, 2018. AR 96-97. Plaintiff has a high school education and completed two years of 21 college. AR 24, 727. Plaintiff previously worked as a data entry clerk and receptionist. AR 24. 22 According to the ALJ, Plaintiff suffers from, at a minimum, the severe impairments of 23 degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, major depressive disorder, ADHD, and 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 2 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 3 of 9 1 adjustment disorder. AR 17. However, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled because she had 2 the RFC “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), except she can perform simple 3 tasks not involving contact with the public.” AR 20. III. 4 5 DISCUSSION Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner’s denial of 6 social security benefits if the ALJ’s findings are based on legal error or not supported by 7 substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th 8 Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)). 9 In Plaintiff’s Opening Brief, Plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ 10 properly evaluated the testimony of Plaintiff; (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical 11 opinion of David Mashburn, Ph.D.; (3) whether the ALJ erred by not incorporating a restriction 12 on Plaintiff’s interactions with supervisors in the RFC; and (4) whether the ALJ erred by not 13 considering Plaintiff’s doctor’s statement on her disabled parking application. 14 A. 15 Plaintiff’s Testimony Initially, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not giving “clear and convincing” reasons for 16 discounting Plaintiff’s testimony. Dkt. 11 at 6-11 (citing Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014- 17 15 (9th Cir. 2014)). 18 Plaintiff testified that she could not sit, stand, or walk for more than two hours, she 19 needed to move every 15 minutes because of burning pain in her back, and was “not often” able 20 to lift ten pounds. AR 76-79. While the ALJ found Plaintiff’s impairments “could reasonably be 21 expected to cause the alleged symptoms,” he also found that Plaintiff’s statements “concerning 22 the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms” were “not entirely consistent 23 with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” AR 20. 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 3 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 4 of 9 1 First, the ALJ cited multiple x-rays and MRIs which were unremarkable, showed only 2 moderate or mild degenerative changes, mildly restricted range of motion, and diffuse 3 tenderness. AR 20-21. While the ALJ cannot require Plaintiff to provide medical evidence to 4 support each part of her pain testimony, he may find that medical evidence inconsistent with 5 Plaintiff’s testimony challenges her credibility. Smartt v. Kijakazi, 53 F.4th 489, 498 (9th Cir. 6 2022). While Plaintiff points to notes from her treating orthopedist, Dr. Patel, frequently 7 indicating her symptoms were consistent with MRI scans, Dkt. 11 at 8; Dkt. 15 at 3, the 8 symptoms referenced in these appointments were not necessarily the same as those about which 9 she testified. See, e.g., AR 1059 (lying down exacerbated symptoms but “sitting down alleviates 10 11 her pain”). Second, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff’s treatment “has generally been routine and 12 conservative. She was prescribed NSAID pain relievers, neuropathic pain medication, and 13 muscle relaxant; and attended physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic care.” AR 21. The 14 ALJ noted further noted that Plaintiff had “short-term relief from pain medication, massage, and 15 chiropractic care” and “good relief from injections.” AR 21. Evidence of conservative treatment 16 is sufficient to discount a claimant’s testimony regarding severity of an impairment. Doney v. 17 Berryhill, 728 F. App'x 687, 689 (9th Cir. 2018) (citing Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 750–51 18 (9th Cir. 2007)). This is especially true where a claimant acknowledges a favorable response to 19 the conservative treatment. See Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008) 20 (where plaintiff received “physical therapy and the use of anti-inflammatory medication, a 21 transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit, and a lumbosacral corset,” his positive response 22 to these treatments undermined testimony “regarding the disabling nature of his pain”); see also 23 Patricia B. v. Kijakazi, No. 2:21-CV-00118-ACE, 2023 WL 173611, at *4 (E.D. Wash. Jan. 12, 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 4 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 5 of 9 1 2023) (affirming ALJ where plaintiff had “short-term relief following epidural injections”). 2 Plaintiff argues that Dr. Patel recommended surgery and often noted that conservative treatments 3 were not working. Dkt. 11 at 9-10. However, the ALJ properly considered this difference in 4 opinion between Plaintiff’s doctors. AR 20 (“some providers have discussed or recommended 5 surgical interventions, although others recommend continued conservative treatment”). It is the 6 ALJ’s responsibility to resolve conflicts in medical testimony. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 7 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, 8 one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld. Thomas v. 9 Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). 10 Lastly, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s pain inconsistent with observations from physical 11 examinations. Plaintiff often ambulated independently with a normal gait and without any acute 12 distress. Likewise, examination of Plaintiff’s cervical spine “frequently was unremarkable, 13 showing normal range of motion with no tenderness, while lumbar examination also showed no 14 tenderness.” AR 21. 15 Plaintiff argues that this “does not conflict with her testimony that she could not stand or 16 walk for prolonged periods.” Dkt. 15 at 3 (emphasis in original). Even if the physical exams 17 were not a legitimate basis to discredit this portion of Plaintiff’s testimony, the other issues 18 discussed above constitute “clear and convincing” reasons on their own. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 19 1014. 20 B. 21 22 The April 2018 Opinion of David Mashburn, Ph.D. Plaintiff also assigns error to the ALJ’s evaluation of an April 2018 opinion from examining psychologist David Mashburn, Ph.D. Dkt. 11 at 11-15. 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 5 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 6 of 9 1 For applications filed on or after March 27, 2017, the Administration has directed ALJs 2 to not defer to medical opinions from treating or examining sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). 3 Instead, they must evaluate the persuasiveness of all medical opinions by analyzing their 4 “supportability” and “consistency,” as well as other appropriate factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920c(a). 5 The Ninth Circuit recently held that the “revised social security regulations are clearly 6 irreconcilable with [its] caselaw according special deference to the opinions of treating and 7 examining physicians on account of their relationship with the claimant.” Woods v. Kijakazi, 32 8 F.4th 785, 792 (9th Cir. 2022). Therefore, for applications filed after March 27, 2017, “an ALJ’s 9 decision, including the decision to discredit any medical opinion, must simply be supported by 10 11 substantial evidence.” Id. at 787. In his report for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Dr. 12 Mashburn noted Plaintiff’s history of abuse, previous psychiatric hospitalizations, and her 13 termination from her most recent job due to paranoia and inability to focus on her work. AR 727- 14 28. Dr. Mashburn observed that Plaintiff was cooperative, had an affect that was “labile and 15 other times flat,” abnormal thought process and content (tangential and circumstantial thoughts), 16 and abnormal concentration (“somewhat poor serial 3’s and very difficult to get concise answers 17 to questions”). AR 730-31. The remainder of Dr. Mashburn’s observations appeared to be 18 normal. Plaintiff showed normal orientation, perception, memory, fund of knowledge, abstract 19 thought, insight and judgment, and “goal directed” speech. Id. With respect to mood, Plaintiff 20 said, “considering what I am going through fine…I have to think positively- but I want to have a 21 complete breakdown.” AR 730. Dr. Mashburn awarded Plaintiff a 19 on the Hamilton Scale for 22 depression (moderate to severe) and concluded that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability 23 to understand, remember, and persist in tasks by following detailed instructions, perform 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 6 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 7 of 9 1 activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual, communicate and 2 perform effectively in a work setting, maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting, and 3 complete a normal workday and work week without interruptions from psychologically based 4 symptoms. AR 729. Dr. Mashburn also found moderate limitations to Plaintiff’s ability to learn 5 new tasks, perform routine tasks without special supervision, adapt to changes in a routine work 6 setting, make simple work-related decisions, be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate 7 precautions, ask simple questions or request assistance, and set realistic goals and plan 8 independently. Id. 9 However, the ALJ found Dr. Mashburn’s opinion unpersuasive, stating that it was neither 10 internally consistent with Dr. Mashburn’s own observations nor with the medical record. AR 23. 11 Plaintiff argues this was error because the ALJ ignored many of Dr. Mashburn’s abnormal 12 findings. Dkt. 11 at 13. This Court disagrees and finds the ALJ’s reasoning for rejecting Dr. 13 Mashburn’s opinion was supported by substantial evidence. 14 “Supportability means the extent to which a medical source supports the medical opinion 15 by explaining the ‘relevant . . . objective medical evidence.’” See Woods, 32 F.4th at 791–92 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(c)(1)); see also § 416.920c(c)(1). Dr. Mashburn’s observations 17 generally indicated Plaintiff was acting and appearing within normal limits, and other psychiatric 18 exams indicate the same. AR 730, 758, 762. The ALJ correctly found that such observations “are 19 inconsistent with moderate to marked limitations and marked overall impairment severity.” AR 20 23. 21 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ ignored other evidence consistent with Dr. Mashburn’s 22 opinion. Dkt. 11 at 14-15. Plaintiff notes that she was late for half of ten sessions with a given 23 health provider, was “visibly agitated” in one visit, “was struggling with organization because of 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 7 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 8 of 9 1 the stressors in her life” and “was tearful when discussing her history of abuse” in other visits. 2 Id. (citing AR 735-43, 741, 736, 743). An ALJ need not discuss every treatment note in a 3 claimant’s medical record, but must explain why significant probative evidence has been 4 rejected. Loader v. Kijakazi, No. 21-35429, 2022 WL 823656, at *1 (9th Cir. Mar. 18, 2022) 5 (citing Vincent ex rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394–95 (9th Cir. 1984)). Of the 6 observations cited by Plaintiff, none vary drastically from those normal observations Dr. 7 Mashburn recorded, and none “are probative of more severe limitations” than those in the RFC. 8 Loader, 2022 WL 823656, at *1. Thus, it was not error for the ALJ to disregard these notes. 9 C. 10 Restriction on Interactions with Supervisors Plaintiff assigns error to the ALJ’s RFC determination because it did not include any 11 restriction on Plaintiff’s interactions with supervisors. Dkt. 11 at 15-16 (citing AR 23). 12 Consulting doctors Carla van Dam, Ph.D. and Jon Anderson, Ph.D., both reviewed the record 13 and found Plaintiff had several mild and moderate limitations. AR 108-17. Dr. van Dam found 14 Plaintiff could “function with occasional, but not frequent, criticism from supervisors.” AR 115. 15 The ALJ found both opinions “generally persuasive” and “largely consistent with the medical 16 record.” Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred when he failed to address the limitation on supervisors “or 17 adopt it in his residual functional capacity assessment.” Dkt. 11 at 16. 18 This Court finds persuasive the Commissioner’s cite to Patricia T. v. Comm'r of Soc. 19 Sec., No. 1:17-CV-00912-MC, 2018 WL 4610053, at *2 (D. Or. Sept. 25, 2018), aff'd sub nom. 20 Thomas v. Saul, 796 F. App'x 923 (9th Cir. 2019). In Patricia T., the ALJ gave great weight to 21 the majority of an opinion but gave no weight to a portion about the plaintiff’s need for an 22 “understanding supervisor.” Id. at *3. The district court affirmed, finding this requirement was 23 “not a proper functional assessment of a work limitation” and “simply too vague and 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 8 Case 3:22-cv-05745-GJL Document 18 Filed 05/18/23 Page 9 of 9 1 unquantifiable to incorporate into the claimant’s RFC or into a VE hypothetical.” Id. at 4. The 2 same is true for Dr. van Dam’s requirement here, and the ALJ did not err by ignoring it. 3 D. Disabled Parking Application 4 Plaintiff also argues the ALJ erred when he did not consider Plaintiff’s primary care 5 physician’s statements on a disabled parking application, recommending her for permanent 6 parking privileges and indicating that she could not walk 200 feet before stopping to rest or must 7 use an assistive device. Dkt. 11 at 16; AR 1259. The form contains no other statements or notes 8 from the doctor. AR 1259. As the Commissioner points out, this is not a medical opinion and the 9 ALJ was not required to consider it. Dkt. 14 at 10-11. See Papin v. Barnhart, 221 F. App'x 540, 10 541 (9th Cir. 2007) (ALJ was not required to consider a “disabled person placard statement” 11 because it was conclusory). 12 IV. CONCLUSION 13 Based on these reasons and the relevant record, the Court ORDERS that this matter be 14 AFFIRMED to pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Clerk is directed to enter 15 judgment for Defendant and close the case. 16 Dated this 18th day of May, 2023. 17 A 18 Grady J. Leupold United States Magistrate Judge 19 20 21 22 23 24 ORDER ON PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT - 9

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