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Clair v. Berryhill

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

September 5, 2017

WILLIAM R. ST. CLAIR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge.

         William R. St. Clair has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 13, 2009, Mr. St. Clair filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging that he became disabled beginning that day. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 454. That application was denied on initial administrative review, on reconsideration, and after a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Id. On October 23, 2014, this Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. Id. On December 3, 2015, another hearing was held before the ALJ. AR 488-523. Mr. St. Clair appeared and testified, as did his father, Floyd Lee St. Clair, and a vocational expert. Id.

         In a written decision on February 4, 2016, the ALJ found that Mr. St. Clair could perform his past relevant work as a floor waxer-as well as jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-and therefore was not disabled. AR 480-81. The Appeals Council denied Mr. St. Clair's request for review on July 29, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 437. Mr. St. Clair appealed that decision in a complaint filed with this Court on October 5, 2016. Dkt. 3; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Mr. St. Clair seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred:

(1) in evaluating the medical evidence;
(2) in evaluating Mr. St. Clair's testimony;
(3) in evaluating the lay witness evidence; and
(4) consequently, in assessing Mr. St. Clair's residual functional capacity and in finding Mr. St. Clair could perform his past relevant work and other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision to deny benefits.

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the ALJ finds the claimant disabled or not disabled at any particular step, the ALJ makes the disability determination at that step and the sequential evaluation process ends. See id. At issue here is the ALJ's weighing of different pieces of medical evidence, his evaluation of Mr. St. Clair and his father's testimony, and the ALJ's resulting assessment of Mr. St. Clair's RFC and conclusion that Mr. St. Clair's alleged disabilities do not prevent him from working.

         This Court affirms an ALJ's determination that a claimant is not disabled if the ALJ applied “proper legal standards” in weighing the evidence and making the determination and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 862 F.3d 987, 996 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). This requires “‘more than a mere scintilla, '” though “‘less than a preponderance'” of the evidence. Id. (quoting Desrosiers, 846 F.2d at 576).

         This Court will thus uphold the ALJ's findings if “inferences reasonably drawn from the record” support them. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If more than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the evidence, then this Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical and Other Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the evidence is inconclusive, “‘questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts are functions solely of the [ALJ]'” and this Court will uphold those conclusions. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982) (quoting Waters v. Gardner, 452 F.2d 855, 858 n.7 (9th Cir. 1971)); Morgan v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). As part of this discretion, the ALJ determines whether inconsistencies in the evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant” in deciding how to weigh medical opinions. Morgan, 169 F.3d at 603.

         The ALJ must support his or her findings with “specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. To do so, the ALJ sets out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, ” interprets that evidence, and makes findings. Id. The ALJ does not need to discuss all the evidence the parties present but must explain the rejection of “significant probative evidence.” Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). The ALJ may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. And the Court itself may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         In general, the ALJ gives more weight to a treating physician's opinion than to the opinions of physicians who do not treat the claimant. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Nonetheless, an ALJ need not accept a treating physician's opinion that “is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings” or “by the record as a whole.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195; see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001).

         To reject the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician, an ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons. Trevizo, 862 F.3d at 997. When other evidence contradicts the treating or examining physician's opinion, the ALJ must still provide “specific and legitimate reasons, ” supported by substantial evidence, to reject that opinion. Id. An ALJ should weigh the physician's opinion according to factors such as the nature, extent, and length of the physician-patient working relationship, the frequency of examinations, whether the physician's opinion is supported by and consistent with the record, and the specialization of the physician. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1)-(6). Finally, a non-examining physician's opinion may constitute substantial evidence for an ALJ's findings if that opinion “is consistent with other independent evidence in the record.” Tonapetyan, 242 F.3d at 1149.

         A. Treating Physician: Dr. Chesnut

         Dr. Randal Chesnut evaluated Mr. St. Clair in October 2009, two weeks after Mr. St. Clair suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. AR 157-58. Dr. Chesnut diagnosed Mr. St. Clair with “cognitive disorder NOS, due to injury, delirium[;] alcohol dependence; [and] substance induced mood [disorder].” AR 157. Dr. Chesnut found that Mr. St. Clair's exertional level was severely limited and his condition made him unable to work. AR 158. In particular, Dr. Chesnut found that Mr. St. Clair was limited by general weakness and needed help with any mobility. Id. Dr. Chesnut indicated he did not know how long Mr. St. Clair would be unable to work. Id.

         The ALJ gave “little weight” to Dr. Chesnut's opinion, explaining that the limitations Dr. Chesnut assessed did not persist for twelve months or more and observing that Mr. St. Clair's “records show no problem with mobility after discharge and demonstrate intact ...


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