United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER AFFIRMING 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 disability insurance 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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On April 27, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging he became disabled beginning August 1, 2004, due to angina and heart stents. See ECF #8, Administrative Record ("AR") 12, 144-52, 174, 178. The application was denied upon initial administrative review on June 8, 2011, and on reconsideration on August 12, 2011. See AR 12. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on October 4, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 35-67.
In a decision dated October 22, 2012, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 12-20. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on January 24, 2014, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 2-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On March 31, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See ECF #1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on June 5, 2014. See ECF #8. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.
Plaintiff argues defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in failing to fully and fairly develop the record and provide plaintiff with a full and fair hearing; (2) in failing to properly evaluate plaintiff's testimony; (3) in failing to properly evaluate the medical evidence; (4) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); (5) in failing to base her step four finding on an RFC that included all of plaintiff's limitations; and (6) in failing to find plaintiff disabled under Medical-Vocational Rule 201.14. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.
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)).
I. Plaintiff's Hearing and the Development of the Record
1. The ALJ's Duty to Fully and Fairly Develop the Record
An ALJ has the duty "to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered." Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). In Tonepetyan, the Ninth Circuit stated that the duty to fully and fairly develop the record may be discharged "in several ways, including: subpoenaing the claimant's physicians, submitting questions to the claimant's physicians, continuing the hearing, or keeping the record open after the hearing to allow supplementation of the record." 242 F.3d at 1150 (emphasis added) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 602 (9th Cir.1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir.1996)). Plaintiff argues that he was harmed by the failure to keep the record open because "it is unclear from this record what the missing evidence is or whether it was ever submitted and exhibited." ECF #14, p. 2.
While the ALJ first told plaintiff and his counsel that she would not provide counsel with additional time to submit medical records, the ALJ agreed to consider any evidence submitted before her decision was made and provided plaintiff with an opportunity to continue the hearing so that additional records could be provided. AR. 38-39, 41. Counsel for plaintiff requested to proceed with, rather than continue, the hearing. AR. 41. Further, plaintiff has failed to cite to any missing evidence that should have been included in the record, and did not allege that the ALJ failed to reference any medical records contained ...