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Sprinkle v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

May 16, 2014

MIRIAM SPRINKLE, Plaintiff,
v.
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 her applications for disability insurance and 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 be affirmed.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 16, 2002, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning October 12, 2001. See ECF #13, Administrative Record ("AR") 15. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on March 23, 2004, at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as did two medical experts and a vocational expert. See AR 32. In a decision dated November 27, 2004, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 32-37.

On October 3, 2005, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings in part because the hearing tape could not be located. See AR 43-44. On remand a new hearing was held before the same ALJ on April 6, 2006, at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as again did two medical experts. See AR 15, 520-43. In a decision dated June 29, 2006, the ALJ once more determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 15-22. Although that decision was affirmed by the Appeals Council on July 7, 2007 (see AR 7), this Court remanded the matter on November 15, 2007, because again hearing tapes could not be located (see AR 594-95, 601, 1008).

On remand to a different ALJ, plaintiff appeared and testified at a third hearing held on May 12, 2008, as did a lay witness and a vocational expert, and appeared and testified at a fourth, supplemental hearing held on September 23, 2008, as did a vocational expert. See AR 895-989. In a decision dated October 28, 2008, that ALJ found plaintiff to be not disabled as well. See AR 560-72. The Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision, but based on the stipulation of the parties, on September 23, 2010, this Court reversed that decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. See AR 1041-45.

On remand, a fifth hearing was held before the same ALJ, at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as did plaintiff's friend, Zita Harris, and a vocational expert. See AR 1465-1527. On April 21, 2011, that ALJ too determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 1008-24. Plaintiff's request for review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Council on February 20, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 990; 20 C.F.R.§ 404.981, § 416.1481. On April 24, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See ECF #1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on August 7, 2013. See ECF #13. 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 an award of benefits, because the ALJ erred: (1) in rejecting the medical opinion evidence from Brett Price, ARNP; (2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; and (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record. For the reasons set forth below, however, the undersigned disagrees that the ALJ erred as alleged and thus in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore recommends that defendant's decision 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 Evaluation of the Medical Evidence in the Record

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 draw "specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755, (9th Cir. 1989).

The ALJ must provide "clear and convincing" reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, that opinion "can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id. at 830-31. However, the ALJ"need not discuss all evidence presented" to him or her. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.3d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why "significant probative evidence has been rejected." Id.; see also Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3rd Cir. 1981); Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 610 (7th Cir. 1984).

In general, more weight is given to a treating physician's opinion than to the opinions of those who do not treat the claimant. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. On the other hand, an ALJ need not accept the opinion of a treating physician, "if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings" or "by the record as a whole." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); see also Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001); Matney on Behalf of Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). An examining physician's opinion is "entitled to greater weight than the opinion of a nonexamining physician." Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. A non-examining physician's opinion may constitute substantial evidence if "it is consistent with other independent evidence in the record." Id. at 830-31; Tonapetyan, 242 F.3d at 1149.

Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's following findings:

... In the prior October 2008 decision, the undersigned acknowledged but discounted the multiple opinions of Brett Price, ARNP (Exhibit 9A/13). Because the updated medical evidence does not change this prior ...

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