United States District Court, E.D. Washington
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 20, 21
K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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).
Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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
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).
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
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's symptom
complaints. ECF No. 20 at 5-21.
Medical Opinion Evidence
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.
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
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)).
Aaron Burdge, Ph.D. - 2011 Opinion
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
Credited Medical Opinions
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.
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