United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION APPEAL
MARY ALICE THEILER, Chief Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Melissa Ashley Winsor proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda, the Court recommends this matter be AFFIRMED.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1983. She obtained her GED and previously worked as a janitor, hardware salesperson, truck and trailer rental clerk, fast food worker, floor installer, and medical equipment tech. (AR 32, 47.)
Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB in October 2010, alleging disability since October 13, 2009. (AR 177-82.) Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and she timely requested a hearing.
ALJ Stephanie Martz held a hearing on February 6, 2012, taking testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 40-66.) On April 19, 2012, the ALJ rendered a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (AR 22-34.) Plaintiff timely appealed.
The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 22, 2013 (AR 1-7), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.
The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 13, 2009, the alleged onset date. At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's fibromyalgia, trochanteric bursitis, cervicalgia, cervical radiculitis, and shoulder impingement, status post arthroscopy with subacromial decompression severe. She found no severe mental impairment. Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment.
If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the following exceptions: she can lift and carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; she can sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand and/or walk for about two hours in an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; and she can reach, handle, and finger frequently. With this RFC, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work.
If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With consideration of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and VE testimony, the ALJ concluded there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy plaintiff could perform, such as work as a stuffer of toy and sports equipment, surveillance systems monitor, and telemarketer. The ALJ, therefore, concluded plaintiff was not disabled at any time since the application date.
This Court's review of the final decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the final decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in rejecting a treating physician's opinion, in relation to the VE testimony at step five, in failing to find a severe mental impairment, and in assessing her credibility. She requests remand for an award of benefits or, in the alternative, for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner maintains the ALJ's decision has the support of substantial evidence and should be affirmed.
Physician's Opinions as to Physical Limitations
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Kelly Evans, as to her functional limitations and in finding she can frequently perform reaching, handling, and fingering. Dr. Evans assessed plaintiff on a number of occasions with limitations amounting to less than sedentary work. (AR 370-73, 378, 453-54, 551-62.) In March 2011, for example, Dr. Evans assessed plaintiff as able to stand/walk and sit for zero to two hours in an eight-hour day, unable to lift any weight, rarely able to finger, grasp, handle, stoop, or crouch, and subject to missing work more than four days per month. (AR 378.)
The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of Dr. Evans, concluding they appeared to be based on plaintiff's subjective self-report and that plaintiff's treatment records reflect minimal objective findings supporting the opined limitations. (AR 28-30.) The ALJ elaborated:
... Dr. Evans' treatment notes reflect minimal objective findings. She has recorded that the claimant has "some" tenderness and reduced range of motion. She has also noted that the claimant has disc protrusions. However, she has not explained how these findings show that the claimant cannot work an 8-hour day, be unable to sit or stand and/or walk for more than 2 hours, or would cause 4 or more absence in a month. Further, Dr. Evans has not explained why the ...