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Robin B. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 29, 2019

ROBIN B., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION AND DISMISSING THE CASE WITH PREJUDICE

          Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by discounting several medical opinions, her testimony, and her mother's lay witness statement. Dkt. 13. As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 39 years old, has a bachelor's degree, and has worked as a nurse assistant, mental retardation aide, and customer service representative. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 30. The parties agree that Plaintiff has not engaged in substance abuse since May 2013. AR 26; Dkt. 13 at 7. Plaintiff applied for benefits in May 2014. AR 132. She alleges disability as of August 2, 2012. AR 65. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 154, 155, 190, 191. After the ALJ conducted a hearing in November 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 60, 15-32.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the August 2012 alleged onset date.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: polysubstance dependence, including methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, opioids (“street methadone, ” Dilaudid, morphine, Vicodin), and cannabis; alcohol/substance withdrawal from various street drugs/substance induced mood disorders/psychosis/psychotic/ schizoaffective disorder/personality disorder/depression/anxiety/agoraphobia/panic disorder/PTSD; tobacco dependence; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine/feet neuralgia.
Step three: These impairments, including the substance use disorders, meet the requirements of listed impairments 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders) and 12.08 (personality and impulse-control disorders).[2]
Drug Addiction and Alcoholism (DAA) Analysis: Because the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled at step three and there was medical evidence of substance use disorders, the ALJ then repeated the five-step process to determine whether the substance use disorders were a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.
Step two: If Plaintiff stopped the substance use, the remaining impairments would continue to be severe.
Step three: If Plaintiff stopped the substance use, the remaining impairments would not meet or medically equal the requirements of a listed impairment.
Residual Functional Capacity: If Plaintiff stopped the substance use, she could perform light work, lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and sitting and standing/walking 6 hours per day each. She could frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She would be limited to uncomplicated or routine tasks, no greater than reasoning level 2. She should have no public interaction and only occasional coworker interaction with no tandem tasks, defined as more than one employee required to complete the assigned duty. She could handle few workplace changes and simple work-related decisions.
Step four: If Plaintiff stopped the substance use, she could not perform past relevant work. However, her college education would provide direct entry into skilled work in the national economy.
Step five: In the alternative, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform if she stopped the substance use.
The substance use disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because Plaintiff would not be disabled if she stopped the substance use. Accordingly, Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

AR 18-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1.[3]

         DISCUSSION

         This Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of Social Security benefits only if the ALJ's decision is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). Each of an ALJ's findings must be supported by substantial evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). “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 evaluating evidence, 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. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one interpretation, the ALJ's interpretation must be upheld if rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005). This Court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012).

         A. Medical Opinions

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinions of examining doctors Loreli Thompson, Ph.D., and Terilee Wingate, Ph.D., and non-examining state agency doctors Leslie Postovoit, Ph.D., and Eugene Kester, M.D. Dkt. 13 at 3-5, 7.

         An ALJ may only reject the contradicted opinion of an examining doctor by giving “specific and legitimate” reasons. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). The ALJ can meet this standard by providing “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. (citation omitted). “The ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must ...


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