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Walgraf v. Berryhill

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

April 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1973.[1] 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.)

         Plaintiff 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.

         On 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.)

         Plaintiff 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 this Court.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The 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.

         If a 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.

         If a 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 document preparer.

         This 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. 2002).

         Plaintiff 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.

         Medical Opinions

         In 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 significantly limited.

         In 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.)

         The ALJ 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 19.)

         Plaintiff 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.

         An ALJ 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) (‚Äúthere is no requirement in the regulations for a direct correspondence between an RFC finding and a specific medical opinion on the functional ...

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