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Brenda N. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 7, 2019

BRENDA N., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing the medical evidence and discounting her testimony.[1] (Dkt. # 13 at 1.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff was born in 1967, has a GED and some college education, and has worked as a seasonal flower worker, seasonal fish packer, painter's apprentice, and dishwasher. AR at 41, 45- 49, 201. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2006. Id. at 200.

         In March 2012, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of November 1, 2008.[2]AR at 181-86. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 114-26, 130-34, 136-38. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on December 6, 2013 (id. at 34-79), the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 16-29.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR at 6-10), and Plaintiff sought judicial review. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 866-74. The ALJ held another hearing on December 18, 2017 (id. at 802-39), and subsequently issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 781-94.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 14, 2012.
Step two: Plaintiff's anxiety-related disorder, depression, history of substance addiction disorder, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, and asthma are severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[4]
RFC: Plaintiff can perform light work with additional limitations. She cannot work with fast-paced production rates. She cannot work at unprotected heights. She cannot drive industrial equipment. She cannot walk on an uneven surface, either inside or outside. She cannot work in a very noisy place. She is able to stand/walk for four hours “at least one hour at a time, but no more total in an eight hour work day.” She can sit for six hours in an eight hour workday, persisting for no more than two hours at a time. “If given a sit/stand alternating option, she would be able to work eight of eight and persist in work activity for four hours on her feet if needed.” She can perform forward bending, stooping, and kneeling on an occasional basis, but crouching, squatting, and/or crawling would be less than occasional. She can lift/carry in accordance with the definitions of light work.
She can understand, remember, and apply simple or detailed instructions (having up to seven steps). She has retained previously acquired knowledge, and can use this in occupations as needed. She can engage in routine and higher level social interactions with co-workers and supervisors, but with unfamiliar persons and strangers (including the public), she can have only routine, perfunctory social interaction. She cannot be required to travel to new and unfamiliar places.
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. Plaintiff sought judicial review of this decision by 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 Harmfully Err in Discounting Plaintiff's Subjective Testimony

         The ALJ discounted Plaintiff's subjective testimony because he found it to be (1) inconsistent with the objective medical evidence, which showed only mild/moderate findings, minimal treatment, and/or improvement with treatment; and (2) inconsistent with her daily activities, which suggest that her limitations are not disabling. AR at 787-88. Plaintiff argues that these reasons are not clear and ...

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