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Ryan v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Meagan Ann Ryan seeks review of the denial of her applications for supplemental security income and child disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by (1) improperly assessing the opinions of state agency consultants John Gilbert, Ph.D. and Michael Regets, Ph.D. that Plaintiff could only perform one- to two-step tasks, and that her concentration, persistence, and pace would periodically wane in response to her subjective perception of pain; (2) improperly discounting the opinions of Sharon Ledesma, Ph.D.; and (3) improperly discounting the opinions of Lynn Staker, M.D. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. # 11) at 1. As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill (the “Commissioner”) and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for supplemental security income benefits on August 12, 2011, and for child disability benefits on September 6, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 68-69. On both applications, she alleged a disability onset date of November 11, 2010. See id at 70, 82. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. See Id. at 80-81, 92-93, 109, 124.

         Following a hearing, ALJ Virginia Robinson denied Plaintiff's claims on October 12, 2012. See Id. at 21-31. The Appeals Council denied review on January 23, 2014. Id. at 1. Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington challenging the ALJ's decision. See Id. at 996-97. The parties subsequently stipulated to remand and, on August 14, 2014, Judge Benjamin Settle remanded the matter with instructions to “reevaluate all of the source opinions of record, including the opinions of the State agency psychological consultants and Lynn Staker, M.D., and give reasons for the weight assessed; reassess Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, including the frequency of Plaintiff's need to alternate positions; reassess Plaintiff's credibility; and, if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert.” Id. at 1001-02.

         The ALJ conducted a second hearing on July 16, 2015. See Id. at 934. On February 11, 2016, ALJ Robinson issued her decision, again denying Plaintiff's claims for benefits. See Id. at 902-26.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled from November 11, 2010, through March 31, 2012. Id. at 914. The ALJ found that Plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 11, 2010; (2) had the following severe impairments: left heel fracture, status post lumbar fusion surgery, depression, and pain disorder; and (3) had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 907. ALJ Robinson determined that Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except that she could stand or walk for a total of less than two hours in an eight-hour work day; had to be able to elevate her left foot to waist height for a total of about four hours in an eight-hour work day; was limited to unskilled work that required only simple, work-related decisions; and could have superficial contact with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. Id. at 909.

         Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ determined that there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (she had no relevant past work). Id. at 913. Plaintiff was therefore “under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from November 11, 2010 through March 31, 2012.” Id. at 914.

         The ALJ also found, however, that Plaintiff's disability ended on April 1, 2012. Id. Plaintiff had not developed any new impairments since April 1, 2012, so her severe impairments remained the same. Id. The ALJ found that there had been an increase in Plaintiff's RFC due to medical improvement, which occurred as of April 1, 2012. Id. at 915. As of that date, Plaintiff had the capacity to perform light work. Id. She was no longer limited in her ability to stand or walk, and no longer needed the ability to elevate her left foot during the workday. See Id. Plaintiff's cognitive and social limitations remained the same: she was “limited to unskilled work that requires only simple, work related decisions, ” and could have “superficial contact with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.” Id.

         Based on Plaintiff's increased RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform work as an office helper, electrical accessories assembler, or housekeeper. Id. at 924. If an additional limitation was added requiring “a sit/stand option that would allow the claimant to alternate between sitting and standing but not be off task more than 10% of the time, ” Plaintiff could perform work as an office helper, small product assembler, and food/beverage order clerk. Id. at 924-25. If Plaintiff was further limited to sedentary work, she could still perform work as a food/beverage order clerk, charge account clerk, or document preparer. Id. at 925. Therefore, Plaintiff's disability ended as of April 1, 2012. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Id. at 885. Plaintiff filed the present complaint challenging the ALJ's determination that she was not disabled as of April 1, 2012.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Id.

         Plaintiff raises three issues in her challenge of the Commissioner's decision. First, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ misevaluated the opinions of State Agency medical consultants John Gilbert, Ph.D., and Michal Regets, Ph.D. Pl. Op. Br. at 1. Second, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of examining doctor Sharon Ledesma, Ph.D. Id. Third, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of examining doctor Lynn Staker, M.D. Id. The Commissioner disputes each of Plaintiff's alleged errors. Def. Resp. Br. (Dkt. # 14) at 2-10.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Assessing the Opinions of Dr. ...

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