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Haase v. Berryhill

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

November 2, 2017

BARBARA A. HAASE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Barbara A. Haase proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and 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, 1962.[1] She has a ninth-grade education, and has worked as a hotel housekeeper, medication technician, cannery worker, and animal caretaker. (AR 66, 75.)

         Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI and DIB in June 2013. (AR 181-93, 220.) Those applications were denied and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 125-28, 131-44.)

         On October 29, 2014, ALJ Kelly Wilson held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 44-78.) On June 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 28-38.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on October 14, 2016 (AR 6-11), 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 December 15, 2011, the alleged onset date. (AR 30.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiffs degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (AR 30-31.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairment did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 31.)

         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 capable of performing light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), with additional limitations. She can stand/walk for four hours in an eight-hour workday. She can frequently kneel, crouch, and crawl, and occasionally balance, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards. (AR 31.) With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 36.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform 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 found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to the representative occupations of small products assembler, office helper, and mail clerk.

         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). 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 erred in (1) discounting her subjective testimony; (2) assessing medical opinions; and (3) failing to provide the VE with the questions she submitted in response to the ALJ's vocational interrogatory.[2] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         Plaintiffs subjective testimony

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiffs subjective testimony and explained that she discounted it because (1) the medical evidence does not corroborate Plaintiffs allegations of disabling limitations; (2) Plaintiff received minimal and conservative treatment for her allegedly disabling condition; (3) Plaintiff has not complied with all treatment recommendations; (4) Plaintiffs activities demonstrate that she can perform light work; (5) Plaintiff stopped working for reasons unrelated to her impairments; and (6) Plaintiff reported symptoms at the hearing that she had not reported to providers, and specifically denied during a consultative examination. (AR 33-35.) Plaintiff argues that these reasons are not clear and convincing, as required in the Ninth Circuit. Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1136-37 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court will address each of the ALJ's reasons in turn.

         A. Medical evidence

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings regarding the medical evidence on the grounds that the ALJ cited only normal objective findings, but overlooked abnormal findings. Dkt. 12 at 9. Plaintiff is mistaken. The ALJ's decision does refer to abnormal objective findings, but finds that they were "fairly benign" and therefore inconsistent with allegations of disabling limitations. (AR 34 (referencing some limitations in range of motion (AR 307).) Plaintiff emphasizes abnormal findings included in her one physical therapy note of record (AR 369-73), but subsequent treatment records discussed by the ALJ demonstrate mostly normal findings. (AR 32-33.) Plaintiff has not shown that the ALJ cherry-picked evidence in an effort to portray her as less limited. The ALJ did not err in considering the extent to which the medical evidence supported Plaintiffs allegations. See Rollins v. Massanari,261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001) ("While subjective pain testimony ...

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