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Hackbart v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

January 13, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN T. RODGERS, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 15, 18. Attorney Randy J. Fair represents Plaintiff, and Special Assistant United States Attorney Terrye E. Shea represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


On February 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed both a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. Tr. 18; 119-20. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning August 1, 2009. Tr. 18; 121;133. Plaintiff reported that she was unable to work due to depression, Hepatitis C, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and suicide ideation. Tr. 286. The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Tr. 18;119-208; 210-20. On October 25, 2012, Administrative Law Judge Caroline Siderius presided over a hearing and heard testimony from medical expert Kent Layton, Ph.D., vocational expert Diane Kramer, and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel. Tr. 43-93. On November 30, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 18-36. The Appeals Council declined review. Tr. 1-5. The instant matter is before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties and, thus, they are only briefly summarized here. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 44 years old and living with her mother. Tr. 80-81.

Plaintiff testified that every day she has pain in her shoulders, back and "all over." Tr. 76. Plaintiff explained that she has muscle spasms that shoot up her shoulders, back, and buttocks. Tr. 76. Plaintiff said her depression started when her father died about four years ago, and it has worsened over the years. Tr. 77.

Plaintiff said she shops late at night when her body is not hurting. Tr. 78. She testified that her mother does her housecleaning and prepares her meals. Tr. 78. Plaintiff said she spends most of her time sleeping, and she leaves the house about twice per week. Tr. 79-80.

At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she has abstained from alcohol and methamphetamine since she completed an inpatient program in 2005. Tr. 70. She said she has a prescription for medical marijuana, and she grows plants for her personal consumption. Tr. 70-71. Plaintiff explained that she used the marijuana to ease pain caused by her fibromyalgia. Tr. 71. Plaintiff said that she attends regular meetings, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, at her church. Tr. 73-74.


The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable construction of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987).


The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot do her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, claimant is found "disabled." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I-v), 416.920(a)(4)(I-v).


At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of hepatitis C, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease at C4-5 and C6-7 with spondylosis, anxiety, depression and somatoform disorder. Tr. 20. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Tr. 21. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work. Tr. 22-23. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 34. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers that Plaintiff can perform, such as Cleaner I and mail clerk. Tr. 35. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of the decision. Tr. 36.


Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in weighing six medical opinions, and by failing to meet the ALJ's burden at Step Five.

A. Anjna Grover, M.D.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of Dr. Grover for three reasons: (1) the doctor's opinion was vague; (2) the opinion relied upon subjective complaints; and (3) the opinion was not supported by objective evidence. ECF No. 15 at 12-13.

Anjna Grover, M.D. completed a Physical Evaluation form dated December 25, 2009. Tr. 811-14. In that form, Dr. Grover listed Plaintiff's primary impairment as fibromyalgia, and noted Plaintiff was limited by paresthesia. Tr. 812. In addition to fibromyalgia and parathesia, Dr. Grover's diagnoses on the form included back pain, hepatitis C and depression. Tr. 813. Dr. Grover found that Plaintiff's diagnoses caused several marked and moderate limitations in a variety of basic work related activities. Tr. 813. Dr. Grover opined Plaintiff was limited to light or sedentary work. Tr. 813. Dr. Grover provided few notations or explanations on the form to support her opinion. Tr. 811-14.

The ALJ found that Dr. Grover failed to provide objective evidence to support her conclusion that Plaintiff was limited to light or sedentary work. Tr. 29. The ALJ specifically noted Plaintiff's complaint of paresthesia in her upper extremities was undermined by nerve conduction studies that did not confirm paresthesia. Tr. 29. The ALJ found that Dr. Grover's statements about Plaintiff's pain were vague and appeared based upon subjective complaints. Tr. 29.

An ALJ may discredit physician opinions that are conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole, or by objective medical findings. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195. Also an ALJ may give little weight to a physician's opinion that is based on a claimant's subjective complaints which were ...

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