United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
THOMAS A. DAVENPORT, JR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting 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 his 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 April 27, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning February 1, 2006, due to sarcoidosis. See ECF #11, Administrative Record ("AR") 157, 284. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review on September 12, 2007, and on reconsideration on March 25, 2008. See AR 157. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on September 9, 2009, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 85-149.
In a decision dated February 24, 2010, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 157-64. On April 12, 2011, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review, remanding the matter for further consideration of the evidence in the record concerning her mental impairments, including "if necessary, obtain[ing] evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of [plaintiff]'s impairments." AR 172. On December 15, 2011, another hearing was held before a different ALJ, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a lay witness and a different vocational expert. See AR 29-84.
In a decision dated January 12, 2012, the second ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled as well. See AR 9-21. Plaintiff's request for review of the second ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on December 13, 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 February 11, 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 May 14, 2013. See ECF #11. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred in failing to obtain evidence from a medical expert regarding the impact and interplay of his physical and mental health impairments. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ so erred, and therefore finds defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.
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)).
As noted above, in remanding this matter for further proceedings the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to "if necessary, obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of the claimant's impairments." AR 172. In her decision following remand, the ALJ stated that because she found plaintiff's mental health impairments to be severe at step two of the sequential disability evaluation process,  "it was not necessary to obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify their nature and severity." AR 9. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to call a medical expert to evaluate the impact and interrelation of her physical and mental impairments in regard to her ability to function. The Court disagrees.
An ALJ has the duty "to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered." Tonapetyan v. Halter , 242 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). It is only where the record contains "[a]mbiguous evidence" or the ALJ has found "the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the evidence, " however, that the duty to "conduct an appropriate inquiry" is triggered. Id . (citations omitted); see also Mayes v. Massanari , 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). The ALJ in this case did not find the record to be inadequate. See AR 9-21. Further, while the evidence relied on by plaintiff in this case may be ambiguous to some extent as to the exact nature of the interrelation between his physical and mental symptoms, as well as his future prognosis, it is not at all ambiguous as to the impact his impairments have on his ability to perform work-related tasks.
The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, "questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts" are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker , 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, "the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Morgan v. Commissioner of the Social Sec. Admin. , 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence "are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount" the opinions of medical experts "falls within this responsibility." Id. at 603.
In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings "must be supported by specific, cogent reasons." Reddick , 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Id . The ALJ also may draw inferences "logically flowing from the evidence." Sample , 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court itself may ...