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Hansen v. Berryhill

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

February 6, 2018

ALAN R. HANSEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Alan R. Hansen proceeds through counsel in his appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's 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, 1968.[1] He has a high school diploma, community college education in photography, and vocational training related to computers and forklift and warehouse management. (AR 37.) He previously worked as a retail clerk. (AR 179.)

         Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI and DIB in October 2013. (AR 78, 155-56, 158-63.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 106-08, 110-13.)

         On October 1, 2015, ALJ David Johnson held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 32-77.) On November 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 10-27.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 16, 2017 (AR 1-4), 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 June 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (AR 12.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, hypertension, gout, bilateral knee abnormality, spinal abnormality, and obesity. (AR 12-14.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 14-16.)

         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 that does not require standing or walking for more than four hours in an eight-hour workday. He can at most occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs. He cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He cannot be exposed to hazards such as open machinery or unprotected heights. He cannot have concentrated exposure to extreme cold or vibration. He can perform simple, routine tasks that do not require more than occasional, superficial interaction with the general public or co-workers. (AR 17.) With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (AR 24.)

         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 a VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to representative occupations including production assembler, inspector and hand packager, and office helper. (AR 25-26.)

         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 his subjective symptom testimony; and (2) assessing certain medical evidence and opinions.[2] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         Subjective symptom testimony

         The ALJ discounted Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony because (1) some of Plaintiff's alleged physical limitations were not corroborated by objective medical evidence; (2) Plaintiff sought little treatment for mental symptoms he alleges are disabling, and much of the objective evidence related to his mental conditions is unremarkable; and (3) Plaintiff's symptoms were reported inconsistently and his activities are inconsistent with his alleged limitations. (AR 18-21.) 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).

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in focusing on how his allegations of left foot and toe pain, gout, hypertension, and back pain were not corroborated by the record, because the ALJ's analysis of these issues “is not a convincing reason to reject [Plaintiff's] testimony about the symptoms and limitations associated with his bilateral knee impairments.” Dkt. 11 at 9. But the ALJ did not cite this evidence as a reason to discount Plaintiff's testimony about his knee impairments. The ALJ explained that some limitations attributable to the knee impairments were supported by the medical record, and that the RFC assessment accounted for the limitations established by the record. (AR 18-19.) The ALJ did not err in considering the extent to which Plaintiff's allegations were consistent with the medical evidence, as one reason among multiple reasons. See Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001) (“While subjective pain testimony cannot be rejected on the sole ground that it is not fully corroborated by objective medical evidence, the medical evidence is still a relevant factor in determining the severity of the claimant's pain and its disabling effects.”).

         Next, Plaintiff goes on to argue that the ALJ erred in finding that his lack of mental health treatment undermined his allegations of disabling mental limitations, because the ALJ did not ask Plaintiff why he did not receive more treatment. Dkt. 11 at 9-10. But the ALJ did acknowledge Plaintiff's lack of insurance at times, and noted that even when Plaintiff did have insurance, he did not seek treatment for his depression or anxiety, but did seek treatment for other conditions. (AR 19.) Under these circumstances, the ALJ reasonably concluded that Plaintiff's mental impairments themselves did not prevent Plaintiff from seeking treatment, and Plaintiff has offered no other explanation for his failure to seek treatment other than to reference unnamed “difficulties” he faced in the process. Dkt. 11 at 10. Plaintiff has not shown that the ALJ's rationale is unreasonable, and therefore it shall not be disturbed. See Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982) (“Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld. In reaching his findings, the law judge is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.”).

         With respect to the ALJ's finding that much of Plaintiff's objective evidence related to his mental impairments did not corroborate his allegations, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to discuss the clinical findings that do support Plaintiff's allegations. Dkt. 11 at 10-11. But Plaintiff's opening brief does not identify any clinical findings that support his allegations, and instead summarizes his own statements at length. Dkt. 11 at 11-16. This portion of Plaintiff's brief does not establish error in the ALJ's decision, because he cites no evidence contrary to the ALJ's conclusion. The bare assertion that such evidence exists is insufficient. See Indep. Towers of Wash. v. Washington, 350 F.3d 925, 929 (9th Cir. 2003) (declining to address assertions unaccompanied by legal arguments: “We require contentions to be accompanied by reasons.”). Furthermore, the ALJ did cite evidence that supports Plaintiff's allegations to some degree, and indicated that the RFC assessment accounts for those limitations. (AR 20-21.) Although Plaintiff states conclusorily that the ALJ failed to account for all of his mental health symptoms (Dkt. 11 at 11), he fails to identify any particular limitation that the ALJ omitted. Thus, Plaintiff has failed to identify any specific error in the ALJ's assessment of the medical evidence related to his mental conditions. See Valentine v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 692 n.2 (9th Cir. 2009) (“Valentine does not detail what other physical limitations follow from the evidence of his knee and should[er] injuries, besides the limitations already listed in the RFC. We reject any invitation to find that the ALJ failed to account for Valentine's injuries in some unspecified way.”).

         Finally, Plaintiff notes that the ALJ described inconsistencies within his testimony and between his testimony and his activities, but claims that “none of the alleged inconsistencies selected by the ALJ are meaningfully inconsistent with [his] testimony, nor are any of his activities transferable to any type of full-time work skills.” Dkt. 11 at 10. Both of these arguments fail. First, the ALJ did not err in citing inconsistencies within Plaintiff's testimony as a reason to discount his statements. See Greger v. Barnhart, 464 F.3d 968, 972 (9th Cir. 2006) (ALJ may consider a claimant's inconsistent or non-existent reporting of symptoms). The ALJ did not ...

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