Meisner v. Commissioner of Social Security

Filing 12

ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION signed by Hon. S. Kate Vaughan. The Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED, and this case is DISMISSED with prejudice. (TF)

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1 2 3 4 5 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON AT SEATTLE 6 7 8 DAVID M. II, 10 11 Case No. C23-6017-SKV Plaintiff, 9 v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION Defendant. 12 13 14 Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits 15 (DIB). Having considered the ALJ’s decision, the administrative record (AR), and all 16 memoranda of record, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s final decision and DISMISSES 17 the case with prejudice. 18 19 20 21 BACKGROUND Plaintiff was born in 1969, has a limited education, and previously worked as a carpenter and home attendant. AR 27. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in June 2022. AR 19. In June 2020, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of January 2020; later 22 amended to June 2022. AR 17. Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on 23 reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. AR 149-50. After the ALJ conducted a ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 1 1 hearing in March 2022, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 66-90, 115- 2 24. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which accepted review and 3 remanded because a portion of Plaintiff’s testimony was missing from the hearing record. AR 4 130. Pursuant to the order of the Appeals Council, the ALJ conducted a new hearing in June 5 2023, after which the ALJ issued a decision again finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 17-65. THE ALJ’S DECISION 6 7 Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, 1 the ALJ found: 8 Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 2022, the amended alleged onset date. 9 Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: levoscoliosis of thoracic spine, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the bilateral hands, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 10 11 Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. 2 12 Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work with some exceptions. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. He can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can frequently, but not constantly, handle and finger bilaterally. He can tolerate occasional exposure to extreme environmental heat and cold, and to humidity. He can tolerate occasional exposure to atmospheric conditions as defined in Selected Characteristics of Occupations. He can tolerate occasional exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and exposed, moving machinery. 13 14 15 16 17 Step four: Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work. 18 Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, Plaintiff is not disabled. 19 20 AR 19-21, 27-28. 21 22 23 The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision. AR 1-6. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the 1 2 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P., App. 1. ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 2 1 Commissioner to this Court. Dkt. 1. The parties consented to proceed before the undersigned 2 Magistrate Judge. Dkt. 3. LEGAL STANDARDS 3 4 Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner’s denial of social 5 security benefits when the ALJ’s findings are based on harmful legal error or not supported by 6 substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 7 2005). As a general principle, an ALJ’s error may be deemed harmless where it is 8 “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 9 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to 10 11 determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means - and means only - such 12 relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 13 Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (cleaned up); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 14 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for evaluating symptom testimony, resolving 15 conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. 16 Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record 17 as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the 18 Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is 19 susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner’s conclusion that 20 must be upheld. Id. 21 DISCUSSION 22 Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in making an adverse symptom testimony finding 23 regarding his handling and fingering abilities. Dkt. 8 at 2-6. The Commissioner contends the ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 3 1 ALJ’s decision is free of harmful legal error, supported by substantial evidence, and should be 2 affirmed. Dkt. 10 at 2-9. The Court agrees. 3 Absent evidence of malingering, an ALJ is required to provide clear and convincing 4 reasons to discount a claimant’s testimony. Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1136-37 (9th Cir. 5 2014). This requires the ALJ to specify which parts of the testimony are not credible and which 6 evidence contradicts it. Laborin v. Berryhill, 867 F.3d 1151, 1155 (9th Cir. 2017). 7 In March 2022, Plaintiff testified about significant limitations in his left hand, including a 8 loss of grip, sharp pains, and difficulty holding items like a gallon of milk or a plate. AR 79-80. 9 By the June 2023 hearing, he reported issues with both hands, including wearing a brace on his 10 left wrist, difficulty picking up small items, dropping objects, and needing help with tasks like 11 putting on socks and shoes. He also testified that he could no longer carry a gallon of milk with 12 either hand or do dishes due to lack of grip. AR 53-55. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff’s hand 13 impairments caused him some functional limitations, but rejected his allegations of total 14 disability because they were inconsistent with the medical evidence, treatment history, and 15 statements to providers. AR 21-25. 16 Plaintiff argues the ALJ’s finding that the objective medical evidence did not support all 17 of Plaintiff’s testimony is a misapplication of the objective evidence test. He contends that once 18 he shows his medical impairments could be expected to cause some degree of the symptoms he 19 alleges, the ALJ cannot reject his testimony about the extent or severity of his symptoms and 20 limitations based solely upon whether objective evidence supports them. Dkt. 8 at 2-5. 21 The Commissioner responds that the reasons the ALJ identified as undermining 22 Plaintiff’s testimony are clear and convincing, and supported by substantial evidence. Dkt. 10 at 23 3-9. Here, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s testimony inconsistent with the largely unremarkable ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 4 1 medical evidence. AR 21-25 (citing AR 479 (August 2021, did not report hand pain, normal 2 grip, strength, sensation), 632-35, 688, 697, 750, 757, 762 (Post-June 2022, mild arthritis in 3 thumbs and wrists, no tenderness or triggering, normal sensation, negative for wrist pain)). 4 Inconsistent medical evidence, evidence of improvement with treatment, and evidence of 5 minimal treatment are all valid reasons to reject a claimant’s allegation of disabling limitations. 6 See, e.g., Wellington v. Berryhill, 878 F.3d 867, 876 (9th Cir. 2017) (“evidence of medical 7 treatment successfully relieving symptoms can undermine a claim of disability.”); Molina, 674 8 F.3d at 1113-14 (ALJ may rely on an unexplained or inadequately explained failure to seek 9 treatment); Carmickle v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1161 (9th Cir. 2008) 10 (“Contradiction with the medical record is a sufficient basis for rejecting the claimant’s 11 subjective testimony.”); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(2)-(3). The ALJ also explained that Plaintiff’s 12 testimony was undermined by his conservative treatment, consisting of anti-inflammatory 13 medication and a thumb splint. AR 23-24 (citing AR 688, 696-97). 14 Similarly, the ALJ discounted Plaintiff’s testimony because of inconsistencies in 15 Plaintiff’s statements about his hand impairments. AR 25. In June 2022, Plaintiff reported he 16 had been experiencing bilateral hand and thumb pain for about a year, which is consistent with 17 his hearing testimony. He also informed his provider about a previous injury to his left hand 18 when he was younger. AR 696-97. In contrast, in September 2022, he denied any previous hand 19 trauma and reported that he had been experiencing bilateral hand pain for years. AR 686. The 20 ALJ explained that although these inconsistencies were understandable and unintentional, they 21 suggested Plaintiff’s hand impairments were not as limiting as claimed. AR 25. 22 23 Plaintiff argues the ALJ mischaracterized his complaints regarding the duration of his bilateral hand pain, dkt. 8 at 3-5, and the Commissioner concedes this point. Dkt. 10 at 7-8. ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 5 1 However, Plaintiff does not contest the ALJ’s finding concerning inconsistent statements about 2 his prior hand injury. See Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001) (in 3 evaluating subjective complaints, the ALJ may consider “any inconsistent statements in [his] 4 testimony”). Instead, he contends his prior injury was unrelated to his present allegations. Dkt. 5 8 at 5. To this point, in March 2022, Plaintiff testified that after having surgery on his left hand, 6 his pain gradually got worse, he experienced sharp pains, lost his grip, and his hand locked up. 7 AR 79-80. Likewise, in June 2022, Plaintiff told his provider about his previous hand trauma 8 and described sharp pain and joint locking and popping. AR 696-97. While Plaintiff now argues 9 his prior left-hand injury is unrelated to his current hand impairments, the record paints a 10 11 different picture. The Court notes the legal standard that once a claimant has established a severe 12 impairment “an [ALJ] may not reject [his] subjective complaints based solely on a lack of 13 objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity” of his symptoms. Bray v. 14 Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1227 (9th Cir. 2009). However, in this case the Court 15 concludes the ALJ did not simply reject Plaintiff’s testimony due to lack of corroborating 16 objective medical evidence, but also because, as discussed supra, Plaintiff’s conservative 17 treatment and inconsistent statements to providers were inconsistent with the degree of limitation 18 he alleged. Thus, the Court is not persuaded by Plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ rejected his 19 testimony based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate it. 20 Moreover, the objective evidence test does not preclude an ALJ from using inconsistent 21 objective evidence to discount subjective testimony. The Ninth Circuit has consistently found 22 when objective medical evidence in the record is inconsistent with the claimant’s testimony, the 23 ALJ may weigh it against such testimony. See, e.g., Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 672–73 ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 6 1 (9th Cir. 2012) (affirming an ALJ’s determination that interpreted and preferred objective 2 medical evidence to subjective testimony); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 681 (9th Cir. 2005) 3 (affirming an ALJ’s discounting of subjective claims of disabling pain based on objective 4 medical evidence and a claimant’s daily activities); Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959 (affirming an ALJ’s 5 decision discounting a claimant’s testimony after “finding no objective medical evidence to 6 support [claimant’s] descriptions of her pain and limitations,” and “that [claimant] was able to 7 perform various household chores such as cooking, laundry, washing dishes, and shopping”); 8 Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1165–66 (9th Cir. 2001) (affirming an ALJ’s rejection of 9 allegations of disabling pain based on normal physical examinations). Instead, the objective 10 evidence standard “requires that an ALJ cannot insist on clear medical evidence to support each 11 part of a claimant’s subjective testimony when there is no objective testimony evincing 12 otherwise.” Smartt v. Kijakazi, 53 F.4th 489, 498 (9th Cir. 2022). That is, an ALJ may not 13 demand positive objective evidence supporting every allegation a claimant makes. 14 Ultimately, the clear and convincing standard requires an ALJ to show his work, which 15 the ALJ did here. The ALJ is not required to believe every claim of disabling pain, Ahearn v. 16 Saul, 988 F.3d 1111, 1116 (9th Cir. 2021), or to analyze the claimant’s testimony line by line. 17 Lambert v. Saul, 980 F.3d 1266, 1277 (9th Cir. 2020). “The standard isn’t whether our court is 18 convinced, but instead whether the ALJ’s rationale is clear enough that it has the power to 19 convince.” Smartt, 53 F.4th at 499. Here, it does: the ALJ cited specific, clear, and convincing 20 examples across a multi-year period contrasting Plaintiff’s testimony with objective medical 21 evidence. AR 21-25. 22 In sum, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that although Plaintiff had 23 some hand-related functional limitations, they were not as extensive as he claimed. The ALJ ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 7 1 accommodated this finding by limiting Plaintiff to “frequently, but not constantly, handle and 2 finger bilaterally.” AR 21. The Commissioner is responsible for “translating and incorporating 3 clinical findings into a succinct RFC.” Rounds v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 4 1006 (9th Cir. 2015) (citing Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 1169, 1174 (9th Cir. 2008)). 5 Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ’s conclusion but fails to show reversible error in the ALJ’s 6 evaluation. Although the ALJ’s interpretation may not be the only one, it is rational and must be 7 upheld. See Smartt, 53 F.4th at 494; Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954. 8 9 CONCLUSION For the reasons set forth above the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED and 10 this case is DISMISSED with prejudice. 11 Dated this 3rd day of July, 2024. 12 A 13 S. KATE VAUGHAN United States Magistrate Judge 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION - 8

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