United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY APPEAL
Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge
Margaret Walgraf proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a
final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied
plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(DIB) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the
administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this
matter is AFFIRMED.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
was born on XXXX, 1973. She completed high school and a dental
assistant vocational program, and previously worked as a
dental assistant, orthodontic technician, medical clerk, and
dancer. (AR 35, 59.)
filed a DIB application in July 2013, alleging disability
beginning January 14, 2010. (AR 167.) She remained insured
for DIB through December 31, 2011 and, therefore, was
required to establish disability on or prior to that
“date last insured” (DLI). See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.131, 404.321. Her application was denied at
the initial level and on reconsideration.
February 11, 2015, ALJ Gordon Griggs held a hearing, taking
testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR
27-64.) On March 30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding
plaintiff not disabled from January 4, 2010 through her
December 31, 2011 DLI. (AR 12-21.)
timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's
request for review on June 2, 2016 (AR 1-5), making the
ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to
Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation
process for determining whether a claimant is disabled.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000).
At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is
gainfully employed. The ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.
At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers
from a severe impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's
fibromyalgia, history of postpartum polyarthralgia, cervical
degenerative disc disease, periodic cluster headaches, opioid
dependence, benzodiazepine dependence, anxiety disorder, and
adjustment disorder severe. Step three asks whether a
claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment.
The ALJ found plaintiff's impairments did not meet or
equal the criteria of a listed impairment.
claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing,
the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity
(RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has
demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The
ALJ found plaintiff able to perform light work, with the
following limitations: she can never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl, and can frequently reach, handle
and finger; she is limited to occasional exposure to
temperature extremes, vibration, pulmonary irritants, such as
dust, fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation, extremely
bright light (i.e., more than normal office lighting levels),
sustained and persistent loud noise, and hazardous
conditions, such as proximity to unprotected heights and
moving machinery; and she is able to routinely perform simple
tasks and familiar detailed tasks once learned. With that
assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff able to perform her past
relevant work as a medical clerk.
claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant
work, or has no past relevant work, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant
retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that
exists in significant levels in the national economy. With
the assistance of the VE, the ALJ also found plaintiff
capable of performing other jobs, such as work as a parking
lot cashier, office helper, electronic accessories assembler,
charge account clerk, food and beverage order clerk, and
Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to
whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the
findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a
whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th
Cir. 1993). Accord Marsh v. Colvin, 792 F.3d 1170,
1172 (9th Cir. 2015) (“We will set aside a denial of
benefits only if the denial is unsupported by substantial
evidence in the administrative record or is based on legal
error.”) Substantial evidence means more than a
scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v.
Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is
more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports
the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision.
Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir.
argues the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of
State agency medical consultants, her testimony, and the lay
witness statements. She requests remand for further
administrative proceedings. The Commissioner argues the
ALJ's decision has the support of substantial evidence
and should be affirmed.
October 2013, non-examining State agency psychological
consultant Dr. Carla van Dam diagnosed plaintiff with
affective, anxiety-related, and somatoform disorders. (AR 82,
85-86.) She assessed moderate limitations in the ability to
maintain attention and concentration for extended periods;
perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular
attendance, and be punctual; and complete a normal workday
and week without interruptions and perform at a consistent
pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest
periods. (AR 85-86.) She explained in narrative from:
“[Claimant] is able to complete simple and more complex
types of work, but her concentration and ability to persist
would be affected by her excessive focus on pain for which
she self-limits her functional abilities. Once in a routine,
she would likely improve w/ consistency.” (AR 86.) Dr.
van Dam also assessed a moderate limitation in the ability to
respond appropriately to changes in the work setting,
explaining: “Her coping skills are somewhat diminished
in light of how she has been handling the diffuse joint pain
she experiences which causes her to curb her functional
status due to her perception of limitations from pain rather
than due to actual physical restrictions.”
(Id.) She otherwise found plaintiff not
March 2014, non-examining State agency consultant Dr.
Patricia Kraft issued an opinion identical to the opinion of
Dr. van Dam. (AR 96, 99-100.) Both of the opinions, although
rendered almost two years and more than four years after the
DLI respectively, assessed the period from just prior to the
alleged onset date to the DLI. (AR 82, 99.)
did not describe the diagnoses or functional limitations
opined by Drs. van Dam and Kraft. The ALJ did, however,
assign great weight to their opinions, finding them
consistent with the treatment record prior to the DLI. (AR
avers error in relation to the somatoform disorder diagnosis,
defined by the physicians as “physical symptoms for
which there are no demonstrable organic findings or known
physiological mechanisms, ” as evidenced by
“[u]nrealistic interpretation of physical signs or
sensations associated with the preoccupation or belief that
one has a serious disease or injury[.]” (AR 82, 96.)
Plaintiff does not assign error at step two. She argues the
ALJ purported to give great weight to the opinions of Drs.
van Dam and Kraft, but did not consider or even mention the
somatoform disorder diagnosis and associated limitations and,
therefore, improperly rejected the opinions of these
non-examining physicians without “reference to specific
evidence in the medical record.” Sousa v.
Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1244 (9th Cir. 1998). She
maintains this error implicated the assessment of her
testimony and the formulation of the RFC.
need not provide reasons for rejecting a physician's
opinion where the ALJ incorporates the opinion into the RFC.
Turner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 613 F.3d 1217,
1222-23 (9th Cir. 2010). The ALJ's findings need only be
consistent with, not identical to limitations assessed by a
physician. Id. See also Rounds v. Comm'r of
Social Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1006 (9th Cir. 2015)
(ALJ may also “rationally rely on specific imperatives
regarding a claimant's limitations, rather than
recommendations.”); Chapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d
1285, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012) (“there is no requirement
in the regulations for a direct correspondence between an RFC
finding and a specific medical opinion on the functional