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Morgan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

December 28, 2017

KRISTIN MIA MORGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge

         Kristin Mia Morgan has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her application for disability insurance and 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), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Morgan filed an application for SSI benefits and another one for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, both on July 10, 2014.[1] Dkt. 5, Administrative Record (AR) 20. She alleged in both applications that she became disabled beginning June 19, 2013. AR 20. Those applications were denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. AR 20. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on December 15, 2015. AR 38-61. Ms. Morgan and a vocational expert appeared and testified.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Morgan could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that she was not disabled. AR 20-32 (ALJ decision dated December 15, 2015). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Morgan's request for review on May 18, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Ms. Morgan appealed that decision in a complaint filed with this Court on June 29, 2017. Dkt. 1; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Ms. Morgan seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, arguing that the ALJ misapplied the law and lacked substantial evidence for her decision. At step three of the five-step “sequential evaluation process, ” the ALJ determined that Ms. Morgan does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets the criteria of an impairment listed in the regulations. AR 23; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926. Ms. Morgan does not challenge this determination. The ALJ determined at step four that Ms. Morgan could not perform her past relevant work. AR 30-31. Ms. Morgan does not challenge that finding. Ms. Morgan contends that the ALJ erred in assessing her residual functional capacity and finding her not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation process. In particular, she alleges that the ALJ erred in rejecting certain medical opinion evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned concludes that the ALJ properly applied the law and substantial evidence supports his decision. Consequently, the undersigned affirms the decision to deny benefits.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW AND SCOPE OF REVIEW

         The Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.520, 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.

         The five steps are a set of criteria by which the ALJ considers: (1) Does the claimant presently work in substantial gainful activity? (2) Is the claimant's impairment (or combination of impairments) severe? (3) Does the claimant's impairment (or combination) equal or meet an impairment that is listed in the regulations? (4) Does the claimant have residual functional capacity (RFC), and if so, does this RFC show that the complainant would be able to perform relevant work that he or she has done in the past? And (5) if the claimant cannot perform previous work, are there significant numbers of jobs that exist in the national economy that the complainant nevertheless would be able to perform in the future? Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724-25 (9th Cir. 2011).

         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (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). If more than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the evidence, then the Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). The Court may not affirm by locating a quantum of supporting evidence and ignoring the non-supporting evidence. Id.

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason the ALJ did not rely on. Id. Only the reasons identified by the ALJ are considered in the scope of the Court's review. Id.

         III. THE ALJ'S CONSIDERATION OF THE MEDICAL 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. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982)). 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. Id. 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 ...


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