United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
NATHAN L. FOUNTAINE, Plaintiff,
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 his application for 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 and that this matter should be dismissed with prejudice.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 3, 2006, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of July 15, 2005, due to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and scoliosis. See Administrative Record ("AR") 103, 116. His application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 51-52. 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 ("VE"). See AR 26-50. On September 28, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 11-25. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (AR 1-5), and plaintiff timely appealed. The Court remanded for further proceedings. AR 550-57.
On October 17, 2013, plaintiff had a second hearing before a different ALJ, where plaintiff and another VE testified. AR 520-44. On November 8, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 469-92. The ALJ found that scoliosis, depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol addiction were severe impairments, but that these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 474-75. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that the claimant can lift[/]carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally. The claimant can sit, stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant needs to be able to sit or stand at will. The claimant can no more than occasionally stoop, bend, crouch, or crawl. He can climb no ramps, stairs or ladders. The claimant can have no contact with the public and no more than occasional contact with coworkers. The claimant is further limited to repetitive predictable tasks.
AR 476. Plaintiff had no past relevant work. AR 486. Considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that he could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore was not disabled. Id.
It does not appear from the record that the Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction of the case after the second ALJ decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, § 416.1484. Thus the ALJ's decision became defendant's final decision after sixty days. Id. On January 13, 2014, 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 April 11, 2014. See ECF #10. 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 an award of benefits because the ALJ erred (1) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; (2) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; and (3) in finding plaintiff not disabled at step five based on the VE's testimony. For the reasons set forth below, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds that defendant's decision should 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 Soc. 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. 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 Assessment of Plaintiff's Credibility
Questions of credibility are solely within the control of the ALJ. See Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 634, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). The Court should not "second-guess" this credibility determination. Allen, 749 F.2d at 580. In addition, the Court may not reverse a credibility determination where that determination is based on contradictory or ambiguous evidence. See id. at 579. That some of the reasons for discrediting a claimant's testimony should properly be discounted does not render the ALJ's determination invalid, as long as that determination is supported by substantial evidence. Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001).
To reject a claimant's subjective complaints, the ALJ must provide "specific, cogent reasons for the disbelief." Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). The ALJ "must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Id.; see also Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). Unless affirmative evidence shows the claimant is malingering, the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony must be "clear and convincing." Lester, 81 F.2d ...