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Johnson v. Colvin

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

October 15, 2014



JOHN C. COUGHENOUR, District Judge.

The Court, having reviewed Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. No. 3), the Report and Recommendation of the Honorable John L. Weinberg, United States Magistrate Judge (Dkt. No. 29), Plaintiff's Objections to the Report and Recommendation (Dkt. No. 30), Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Objections (Dkt. No. 31), and the remainder of the record, does hereby ADOPT the Report and Recommendation (Dkt. No. 29) and AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner.


On March 13, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found Plaintiff to have "the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, [1] subject to certain limitations, " and her claims of disability not credible. ( See Report and Recommendation, Dkt. No. 29 at 2.) Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council. ( Id. ) Plaintiff appealed the decision of the Commissioner and her case was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge. ( Id. ) Plaintiff claims that her impairments, principally back and neck pain, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety prevent her from sustaining employment, and that the ALJ and U.S. Magistrate Judge have erred in their findings to the contrary. (Plaintiff's Objections to the Report and Recommendation, Dkt. No. 30 at 6.) Plaintiff raises four main objections to the Commissioner's decision, discussed in Sections II(B)-(E), infra. ( Id. )


A. Standard of Review

Upon objection to a magistrate's report and recommendation, district courts are required to review the Commissioner's decision de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

However, a court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (The "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."). See also Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). "Substantial evidence" is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). It is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1279. The ALJ is responsible for determining claimant credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. When "the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

Claimants bear the burden of proving that they are disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to a physical or mental impairment that has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A). See also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. See Valentine v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009).

B. ALJ's Assessment of Plaintiff's Credibility

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in finding her incredible with regard to the severity of her symptoms. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not completely credible in her claims regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms. (Administrative Record, Dkt. No. 17-2 at 64.)

ALJs are "responsible for determining credibility and resolving conflicts in medical testimony." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). In weighing a claimant's credibility, the ALJ may consider her reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies either in her testimony or between her testimony and her conduct, her daily activities, her work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which she complains. See Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284. See also Turner v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 613 F.3d 1217, 1224 n.3 (9th Cir. 2010); Valentine, 574 F.3d at 693.

The ALJ reviewing Ms. Johnson's case presented six reasons, supported by evidence, justifying the lack of credibility he found in Ms. Johnson's statements regarding the "intensity, persistence, and limiting effects" of her symptoms. First, Plaintiff's reports of her daily activities include managing her own personal care, meals, and chores, going outside daily, driving a car, grocery shopping, managing her savings account and paying bills, as well as hobbies such as reading, camping, fishing, watching television (five hours at a time, whether or not while sitting is unclear), and walking her dog. Second, Plaintiff's allegations are inconsistent with medical evidence such as 5/5 muscle strength, the ability to ambulate independently with normal gait, and the fact that spinal imaging shows only mild degenerative change, good alignment, mild spinal narrowing, and no fractures. Third, Plaintiff's alleged memory problems and irritable mood are contradicted by medical providers finding normal cognition, good memory, fluent speech, and concrete dialogue, with normal mood and affect, and finding her pleasant and cooperative. Fourth, Plaintiff made inconsistent statements to Dr. Coder regarding her ability to walk and ...

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