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Lynn S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 15, 2019

TRACY LYNN S., Plaintiff,


          Michelle L. Peterson, United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by rejecting Plaintiff's testimony regarding the severity of her impairments; rejecting the lay witness testimony of Plaintiff's husband; evaluating the medical opinion evidence; and assessing Plaintiff's RFC. (Dkt. # 10.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff was born in 1972, and has a high school education. AR at 23, 34. At the time of her administrative hearing, Plaintiff was working two full days per week as a receptionist with a company called Beauty Career. Id. at 35, 71. She previously worked as a dispensing optician for twenty-five years. Id. at 56, 70.

         On March 31, 2015, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of September 21, 2014 due to nerve pain throughout her body, neuropathy, back pain, migraine headaches, anxiety and depression, poor memory, fatigue, blurred vision, hand problems, tremors, and constipation. AR at 15, 86-87, 99. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on May 25, 2017 (AR at 29-84), and Plaintiff testified that multiple sclerosis (MS) was her primary impairment limiting her ability to work. Id. at 44-45. She also described symptoms of anxiety and depression. Id. at 48-49.

         The ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR at 12-24. Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 21, 2014, the alleged onset date.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform less than the full range of sedentary work. Plaintiff can engage in unskilled, repetitive, routine tasks in two hour increments. She can do occasional stooping, squatting, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and climbing ramps and stairs. She can do no climbing of ropes, ladders or scaffolds. She is absent from work up to 5 days per year. She is off task at work up to 8% of the time but still meeting the minimum production requirements of the job.
Step four: Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, Plaintiff is not disabled.

Id. at 15-28.

         As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. AR at 1-4. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when 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 (9th Cir. 2005). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.'” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id.

         “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). 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 Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.


         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Discounting Plaintiff's Testimony

         1. Legal Standard for Evaluating the Plaintiff's Testimony

         It is the province of the ALJ to determine what weight should be afforded to a claimant's testimony, and this determination will not be disturbed unless it is not supported by substantial evidence. A determination of whether to accept a claimant's subjective symptom testimony requires a two-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ must determine whether there is a medically determinable impairment that reasonably could be expected to cause the claimant's symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(b); Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281-82. Once a claimant produces medical evidence of an underlying impairment, the ALJ may not discredit the claimant's testimony as to the severity of symptoms solely because they are unsupported by objective medical evidence. Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 343 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1988). Absent affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, ...

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