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Hoyt v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

December 19, 2013

VICKY A. HOYT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of plaintiff's applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the Court hereby finds that for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 14, 2005, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning December 5, 2004, due to various mental disorders including anxiety, chronic depression, a bipolar disorder, and an obsessive compulsive disorder, kidney stones, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and seizures. See ECF #10, Administrative Record ("AR") 100, 321. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review on May 11, 2006, and on reconsideration on August 11, 2006. See AR 100.

A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on August 26, 2008, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 17-58. In a decision dated September 30, 2008, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 100-110. On June 22, 2009, plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was granted by the Appeals Council, which vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings, including if warranted the obtaining of "supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on [plaintiff's] occupational base." AR 114; see also AR 111, 113-15.

On remand a second hearing was held before a different ALJ on May 9, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a medical expert and a different vocational expert. See AR 59-92. In a decision dated May 13, 2011, that ALJ also determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 121-37. Plaintiff's request for review of the second ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on October 26, 2012, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

On January 2, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See ECF #3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on April 15, 2013. See ECF #10. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review. Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's final decision should be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding she could perform her past relevant work as a hotel maid; and (2) in failing to offer legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of treating physician Antonio Gutierrez, M.D. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds that defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.

DISCUSSION

The determination of the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the "proper legal standards" have been applied by the Commissioner, and the "substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports" that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler , 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan , 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) ("A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.") (citing Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

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) (citation omitted); see also Batson , 359 F.3d at 1193 ("[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record."). "The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine" whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required." Sorenson v. Weinberger , 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). "If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, " the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler , 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.") (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch , 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[1]

I. The ALJ's Determination Regarding Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work

The first ALJ in this case determined that plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. See AR 108. The second ALJ, however, did find plaintiff to be capable of performing her past relevant work as a hotel maid. See AR 136. That ALJ did so based on the testimony of the second vocational expert made in response to a hypothetical question that in turn corresponded with the ALJ's assessment of plaintiff's residual functional capacity. See AR 91, 127, 136. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred here by failing to explain the discrepancy between his finding concerning her past relevant work and that of the first ALJ.

But the Court agrees with defendant that there is no requirement that a subsequent ALJ adopt the findings of a prior ALJ. This is particularly true where as in this case the Appeals Council vacated the prior ALJ's decision, and expressly directed the second ALJ on remand to obtain if warranted "supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of" plaintiff's "assessed limitations on [her] occupational base." AR 114. Plaintiff has not argued, let alone shown, that the additional proceedings conducted on remand did not warrant obtaining further vocational expert testimony. Nor has plaintiff shown the ALJ's reliance on the second vocational expert's testimony to be misplaced here.

"An ALJ may take administrative notice of any reliable job information provided by" a vocational expert." Bayliss v. Barnhart , 427 F.3d 1211, 1218 (9th Cir. 2005). Further, as defendant points out, a vocational expert's "recognized expertise provides the necessary foundation for his or her testimony, " and therefore "no additional foundation is required." Id . Given that, as defendant points out, plaintiff did not object to the second vocational expert's qualifications (see AR 89), and in light of plaintiff's failure to point to any specific problem of ...


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