United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
WILLIAM R. ST. CLAIR, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY
Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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. §
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.
reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision to
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
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).
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).
The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical and Other Opinion
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.
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).
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.
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.
Treating Physician: Dr. Chesnut
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.
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 ...