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Patricia Z. v. Berryhill

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

April 16, 2019

PATRICIA Z., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S DECISION TO DENY DISABILITY BENEFITS

          Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brought this matter for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance (“DIB”) benefits. Plaintiff-who alleges disability primarily due to complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)- contends the decision of the Commissioner was based on legal error and not supported by sufficient evidence.

         I. ISSUES RAISED BY PLAINTIFF

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits, arguing (1) the ALJ inappropriately discounted the opinion of treating physicians; and (2) sufficient evidence does not support the decision to deny benefits in light of new evidence presented to the Appeals Council. See Dkt. 9, pp. 6-7. She also generally asserts that “the preponderance of the evidence” establishes she has been unemployable. Id. at p. 7. For the reasons set forth below, the decision to deny benefits is affirmed.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 21, 2014, plaintiff filed an application for SSI and DIB, alleging she became disabled beginning April 21, 2014. Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (AR) 14. Her application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before administrative law judge Stephanie Martz (the “ALJ”) on November 29, 2016. AR 90. The ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. AR 14-27. In the written opinion, the ALJ also dismissed plaintiff's claim for DIB because she had not acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through alleged onset date. AR 14. This finding has not been challenged on appeal. See Dkt. 1; Dkt. 9.

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential disability evaluation process in determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the disability determination is made at that step, and the sequential evaluation process ends. Id. Step one considers whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)). Step two considers “the severity of the claimant's impairments. Id. If the claimant is found to have a severe impairment, step three considers “whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1.” Id. “If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry.” Id. If not, the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is considered at step four in determining whether the claimant can still do his or her past relevant work and, if necessary, at step five “make an adjustment to other work.” Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determined plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since plaintiff's alleged onset date of April 21, 2014. AR 16. At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: complex regional pain syndrome (or CRPS); history of lumbar fusion and hemilaminotomy with facet degeneration and disc bulge; cervical degenerative disc disease; and osteoarthritis of the left foot. Id. At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. AR 19.

         Before step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work “except she needs to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibration, and hazards (such as working around machinery or heights).” AR 20. After determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four she was unable to perform any of her past relevant work, but that at step five she could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore found plaintiff was not disabled. AR 25-27.

         Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision subject to judicial review. AR 1. Plaintiff appealed to this Court on June 25, 2018. See Dkt. 1. The Parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. Dkt. 4.

         III. DISCUSSION

         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.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” though “less than a preponderance” of the evidence. Id.; Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674-75 (9th Cir. 2017). The Commissioner's findings will be upheld “if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).

         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). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)). The Court, however, may not affirm by locating a quantum of supporting evidence and ignoring the non-supporting evidence. Orn, 495 F.3d at 630.

         A. The ALJ appropriately discounted the opinions of ...


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