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Larned v. Berryhill

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

December 8, 2017

SHIRLEY LYNNE LARNED, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER AND DISMISSING THE CASE

          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Shirley Lynne Larned applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and received a partially favorable decision awarding benefits for a closed period. She seeks review of the finding that her disability ended on September 1, 2015, and that she was no longer eligible for benefits as of that date. Ms. Larned contends the ALJ erred in making an adverse credibility finding for the period after September 1, 2015. Dkt. 8. Finding that the ALJ's adverse credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence and free of harmful legal error, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Ms. Larned is currently 53 years old, has a high school education, and has worked as a department manager and sales clerk. Tr. 71, 159, 186. In April 2014, she applied for benefits, alleging disability as of January 13, 2014. Tr. 159. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, the ALJ conducted a hearing and, on March 25, 2016, issued a decision finding Ms. Larned disabled for the closed period from her alleged onset date of January 14, 2014, through August 31, 2015, but not disabled thereafter. Tr. 21-41. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Larned's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Ms. Larned was disabled from her alleged onset date of January 13, 2014, through August 31, 2015, because her impairments met the listing criteria for somatoform disorders. Tr. 24-30. Applying the framework for evaluating medical improvement, [2] the ALJ found that medical improvement occurred and Ms. Larned's disability ended on September 1, 2015. Tr. 30-40. In so finding, the ALJ found that, while Ms. Larned's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the symptoms she alleged, her statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely credible for the period beginning September 1, 2015. Tr. 33-39.

         DISCUSSION

         Ms. Larned argues that the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility for the period beginning September 1, 2015. Dkt. 8 at 2. Where, as here, the ALJ does not find that the claimant was malingering, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons to reject her testimony. See Vertigan v. Halter, 260 F.3d 1044, 1049 (9th Cir. 2001). An ALJ does this by making specific findings supported by substantial evidence. “General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ gave several reasons for finding Ms. Larned's statements about her symptoms not fully credible for the period beginning September 1, 2015.[3] Ms. Larned challenges each of them.

         1. Objective medical evidence

         The ALJ found that the objective medical evidence was not consistent with a finding of ongoing disability after September 1, 2015. Tr. 34-36. The lack of supporting objective medical evidence cannot be the sole reason an ALJ discounts subjective complaints. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 681 (9th Cir. 2005). Ms. Larned faults the ALJ's reliance on the objective evidence on this basis alone. Dkt. 8 at 3. The Court agrees that if all the ALJ's other reasons for discounting Ms. Larned's statements are invalid, this reason alone cannot support the adverse credibility determination. However, the Court has reviewed the merits of this reason and finds it valid. The Court therefore finds it a valid reason to discount Ms. Larned's statements, so long as the ALJ gave other valid reason to support the adverse credibility determination.

         2. Ms. Larned's statements of improvement to medical sources

         The ALJ found that Ms. Larned's own reports of symptoms to her medical providers were consistent with significant improvement. Tr. 39. The ALJ noted her reports in November 2015 that medication significantly helped her left facial pain; that while she still had pain daily, it did not occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and that she rated her pain as only a 2/10. Id. Ms. Larned argues that the ALJ's reliance on these statements is not clear and convincing because, while the statements demonstrate improvement, Ms. Larned did not admit complete alleviation of her symptoms. Dkt. 8 at 4. Ms. Larned compares these statements to her hearing testimony that she still experienced episodes of overwhelming pain and was able to engage in only two hours of activity per day. Id. She characterizes her contemporaneous reports to her providers as supporting, rather than undermining, this testimony. Id.

         The ALJ is entitled to draw reasonable inferences logically flowing from the record. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008). So long as the inferences the ALJ draws from the evidence are reasonable, this Court may not disturb them. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Here, the ALJ reasonably inferred that Ms. Larned's statements describing improvement demonstrated just that-improvement. The ALJ did not interpret them as evidence of complete alleviation of her symptoms. Even if Ms. Larned's proposed interpretation is reasonable, the Court cannot accept it over the ALJ's valid interpretation.

         Ms. Larned argues that the ALJ's reliance on her report that her pain was a 2/10 was invalid because at the same visit, she also reported episodes of pain that were so overwhelming she could not speak. Dkt 10 at 2. Treating neurologist Oanh Nguyen, D.O., noted Ms. Larned's report at her November 2015 visit that “speech is difficult at times due to pain.” Tr. 1254. The ALJ acknowledged Ms. Larned's reports at that visit that her pain was still present but was no longer constant. Tr. 36. The ALJ's ...


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