United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
MICHAEL J. BENNETT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. This matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule MJR 4(a)(4) and as authorized by Mathews, Secretary of H.E.W. v. Weber , 423 U.S. 261 (1976). After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the undersigned submits the following Report and Recommendation for the Court's review, recommending that for the reasons set forth below, Defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 28, 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability as of January 15, 2007, due to a right shoulder injury, depression, and colon/stomach problems. See Administrative Record ("AR") 208-12, 299. His application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 118-25, 129-36. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on January 5, 2012, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). See AR 30-58.
On January 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. See AR 11-23. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 6, 2013, making the ALJ's decision Defendant's final decision. See AR 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On May 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See ECF ##2, 4. The administrative record was filed with the Court on August 15, 2013. See ECF ##11, 12. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for judicial review and a decision by the Court.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded to Defendant for additional proceedings, because the ALJ erred (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record, and (2) in discounting Plaintiff's credibility. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore recommends that Defendant's decision be affirmed.
The determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("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. Comm'r of Social Sec. 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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 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)).
I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence in the Record
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence at steps two, three, and four. ECF #15 at 3-8. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ should have considered his Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") scores at step two, and cherry-picked evidence showing that he is not disabled at steps three and four, while overlooking evidence corroborating his allegations. The undersigned will address the disputed medical opinions in turn.
A. Legal Standards
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. Comm'r of 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 ...