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Travis C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 20, 2019

TRAVIS C., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

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

          MARSHA J. PECHMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by rejecting his testimony and several medical opinions. Dkt. 12. As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 36 years old, has at least a high school education, and has worked as an end user support specialist, assisting desktop computer users. Dkt. 8, Admin. Record (AR) 33-34, 53, 102. Plaintiff alleges disability as of November 5, 2013. AR 19. He had neck surgery on May 14, 2015. AR 724. After the ALJ conducted hearings in September 2015 and April 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 46, 68, 19-36.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process outlined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the November 2013 alleged onset date.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and status post cervical fusion at ¶ 5-6.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Residual Functional Capacity: Through May 13, 2016 (one year after neck surgery): Plaintiff could perform sedentary work. He could occasionally kneel, crouch, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs. He could not crawl; climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; or be exposed to unprotected heights, moving machinery, vibration, and concentrated extreme cold. He could not reach overhead with either upper extremity.
Since May 14, 2016: Plaintiff can perform light work. He can stand for three hours, walk for two hours, and sit for six hours per day. He can occasionally kneel, crouch, stoop, and climb ramps and stairs. He cannot crawl; climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; or be exposed to unprotected heights, moving machinery, vibration, and concentrated extreme cold. He cannot reach overhead with either upper extremity.
Step four: Plaintiff can, and could prior to May 14, 2016, perform past relevant work as a user support specialist.
Step five: In the alternative, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed through May 13, 2016, and that Plaintiff has been able to perform since May 14, 2016. Therefore, he is not disabled.

         AR 21-36. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 3. The rest of the procedural history is not relevant to the outcome of the case and is thus omitted.

         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

         A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to greater weight than an examining physician's opinion, and an examining physician's opinion is entitled to greater weight than a non-examining physician's opinion. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014). An ALJ may only reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor by giving “clear and convincing” reasons. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Even if a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by stating “specific and legitimate” reasons. Id. 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 set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725.

         “Only physicians and certain other qualified specialists are considered ‘[a]cceptable medical sources.'” Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1161 (9th Cir. 2014) (alteration in original); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502(a), (d), (e); 416.902(a), (i), (j). Under the regulations applicable when Plaintiff filed his applications, a nurse practitioner was a non-acceptable medical source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502(a), 416.902(a). An ALJ may reject the opinion of a non-acceptable medical source by giving reasons germane to the opinion. Ghanim, 763 F.3d at 1161.

         1.Steven Foster, D.O.

         In May 2014, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Foster, diagnosed Plaintiff with lumbago and cervicalgia, and opined that these conditions significantly interfered with Plaintiff's abilities to walk, lift, carry, handle, push, pull, reach, stoop, and crouch. AR 635. Dr. Foster opined that Plaintiff was limited to sedentary work. AR 636. The ALJ gave “some weight” to this opinion, incorporating corresponding limitations into the RFC. AR 29, 24. Plaintiff describes Dr. Foster's May 2014 opinion but does not appear to challenge the ALJ's treatment of it. See Dkt. 12 at 3.

         In July 2014, Dr. Foster opined that Plaintiff could sit four hours per day, stand/walk two hours per day, and lift 10 pounds frequently. AR 693. He could sit or stand 30 minutes before changing position, and would need to walk around for 10 minutes every hour. Id. He needed the opportunity to sit, stand, or walk at will. Id. He could never twist, stoop, crouch, or climb stairs or ladders, and his reach and manipulation were limited. AR 694. He would need to lie down at unpredictable intervals approximately every one to two hours, and would miss about four days of work per month due to his impairments and treatment. Id.

         The ALJ gave Dr. Foster's July 2014 opinions “limited weight, ” accepting the limitations to lifting 10 pounds and walking two hours per day but rejecting the remaining ...


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