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Schonhardt v. Berryhill

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

October 4, 2017

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


          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Schonhardt's Complaint [Dkt. 3] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits.

         Schonhardt suffers from anxiety disorder and depressive disorder. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record 24. She applied for disability insurance benefits in March 2014, alleging she became disabled beginning in June 2007. See AR 22. That application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Martz in July 2016. See id. At the hearing, Schonhardt amended her alleged onset date to October 9, 2011. See id. Schonhardt, represented by a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified at the hearing, as did a vocational expert. See AR 40-78.

         The ALJ determined Schonhardt not to be disabled. See AR 19-39. The Appeals Council denied Schonhardt's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. In March 2017, Schonhardt filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 3.

         Schonhardt argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings because the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the record and Schonhardt's testimony, and therefore in finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process that Schonhardt was capable of performing work available in the national economy.

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not err in evaluating the medical evidence or Schonhardt's testimony, so the ALJ's finding that Schonhardt was not disabled was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.


         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner applied the “proper legal standards” and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. See Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. 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. Sec'y 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)).[1]

         I. The Medical Evidence in the Record

         The ALJ determines credibility and resolves ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount” the opinions of medical experts “falls within this responsibility.” Id. at 603.

          In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989). A physician's opinion “can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996).

         A. David Widlan, Ph.D.

         Schonhardt argues that the ALJ erred by failing to provide a specific and legitimate reason supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinion of examining psychologist David ...

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