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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

February 23, 2018

CODY MICHAEL COOK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 20, 21

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 20, 21. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 3. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion (ECF No. 20) and grants Defendant's motion (ECF No. 21).

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work “exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits on July 28, 2010, alleging an amended onset date of July 28, 2010. Tr. 276-80. The application was denied initially, Tr. 165-68, and on reconsideration, Tr. 172-79. Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on April 11, 2013. Tr. 52-109. On April 26, 2013, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 142-54. On June 4, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ. Tr. 158-62. Plaintiff appeared at a second hearing before an ALJ on March 2, 2015. Tr. 696-732. The ALJ conducted a supplemental hearing on July 14, 2015. Tr. 110-21. On September 9, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 17-36.

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 28, 2010, but that there had been a continuous 12-month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. Tr. 20-21. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; personality disorder with borderline traits; and methamphetamines, benzodiazepines, and marijuana substance use disorder. Tr. 21. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 22. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional mental limitations:

The claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple routine work instructions and work tasks; no interaction with the general public; can work around co-workers, but without close cooperation in performing job tasks; and can handle occasional supervision but no over-the-shoulder type of supervision. In addition, the claimant has mental symptomatology and takes prescription medication for this symptomatology: however, despite any side effects of the medicine, the claimant would be able to remain reasonably attentive and responsive in a work setting and would be able to carry out normal work assignments satisfactority [sic].

Tr. 24.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a farm machine operator. Tr. 34. Alternatively, at step five, the ALJ found there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as laundry worker II, production helper, small parts assembler, sorter, and printed circuit board assembly. Tr. 35. On November 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, Tr. 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying him supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff raises the following issues for review:

1. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence; and
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's symptom complaints. ECF No. 20 at 5-21.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's consideration of the medical opinions of Dr. Burdge, Dr. Cools, Dr. Colby, Dr. Duris, Dr. MacLennan, Dr. Veraldi, Dr. Fitterer, Dr. Beaty, Ms. Hevly, and Mr. Aronsohn. ECF No. 20 at 5-20.

         There are three types of physicians: “(1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant [but who review the claimant's file] (nonexamining [or reviewing] physicians).” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). Generally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician's. Id. at 1202. “In addition, the regulations give more weight to opinions that are explained than to those that are not, and to the opinions of specialists concerning matters relating to their specialty over that of nonspecialists.” Id. (citations omitted).

         If a treating or examining physician's opinion is uncontradicted, the ALJ may reject it only by offering “clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). “However, the ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). “If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Bayliss, 427 F.3d at 1216 (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-831 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         1. Aaron Burdge, Ph.D. - 2011 Opinion

         Dr. Burdge examined Plaintiff on November 10, 2011, and opined Plaintiff had difficulty concentrating; that his irritability would lead to conflicts with others; that his symptoms could be significantly improved with proper use of psychotropic medications; that he needed a high degree of supervision to address his difficulty focusing; that employment tended to subject him to an overly stressful environment which may exacerbate his symptoms; that he may be able to function in an entry-level work position but would require special accommodations for his mood and behavior-related symptoms; that at the time of evaluation Plaintiff was unlikely to function adequately in a work setting; and that Plaintiff would be more likely to maintain long-term employment with job skills coaching. Tr. 413-16. The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Burdge's opinions that Plaintiff's symptoms would improve with psychiatric medications and that overly stressful environments may exacerbate Plaintiff's symptoms, but gave Dr. Burdge's remaining opinions little weight. Tr. 30. Because Dr. Burdge's opinions were contradicted by Dr. Veraldi, Tr. 650-66, 702-12, and Dr. Cools, Tr. 56-78, the ALJ was required to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinions. Bayliss, 427 F.3d at 1216; see also Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066-67 (9th Cir. 2006). Here, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Burdge's credited opinions, as well as the ALJ's rejection of the remainder of Dr. Burdge's opinions. ECF No. 5-9.

         a. Credited Medical Opinions

         The ALJ assigned great weight to Dr. Burdge's opinions that Plaintiff's symptoms would improve with psychiatric medications and that overly stressful environments may exacerbate Plaintiff's symptoms. Tr. 30. Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's reliance on these opinions to support a finding of nondisability. ECF No. 20 at 7-8. Dr. Burdge opined Plaintiff's symptoms “can be somewhat effectively managed through medication” and “there is question as to whether medication can make his symptoms completely manageable.” Tr. 414. Plaintiff argues Dr. Burdge's opinions indicate Plaintiff faces only minor prospective improvements in his symptoms and therefore this evidence supports a finding of disability. ECF No. 20 at 7-8. In support of this perspective on the evidence, Plaintiff notes Dr. Burdge opined Plaintiff was unlikely to function in a work setting until his symptoms were managed more effectively. ECF No. 20 at 6-8 (citing Tr. 447).

         A rational interpretation of Dr. Burdge's opinions, as adopted by the ALJ, is that Plaintiff's symptoms improve with treatment and therefore do not support a finding of disability. Tr. 30. The ALJ's interpretation is supported by other evidence in the record. For example, Dr. Burdge indicated in the same report that Plaintiff's irritability and lack of impulse control “could be significantly improved with use of proper psychotropic medications.” Tr. 414 (emphasis added). Additionally, Dr. Cools testified that Plaintiff's anxiety and depression are controllable with medication, to the point Dr. Cools did not believe they constituted severe impairments, and that Plaintiff's behavior was voluntary. Tr. 74-75. Even if evidence could be interpreted more favorably to Plaintiff, if it is susceptible to more than one rational ...


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