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Shelby v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 23, 2019

EILEEN S., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

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

          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff appeals the denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance. Plaintiff contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) committed reversible error when she (1) failed to adequately account for Plaintiff's limitations in her residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) assessment (including limitations to occasional reaching and management of normal work-related stress); (2) failed to resolve an apparent conflict between a restriction to occasional reaching and jobs identified by the Vocational Expert (“VE”); (3) rejected the opinion of consultative examiner, Dr. Alexander Patterson; (4) rejected Plaintiff's complaints; and, (5) rejected lay witness testimony.

         The Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 18. A hearing was held on December 6, 2017. On January 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision that the Plaintiff was not disabled. In making that determination, the ALJ utilized the five-step disability evaluation process (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). The ALJ determined at steps one through three, that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: right shoulder degenerative joint disease; migraines; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; and these impairments did not meet the Listings (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P. Appendix 1). Tr. 20.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC as follows: The plaintiff can perform a full range of work except she should not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she can frequently crawl; she can occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity; she has sufficient concentration, persistence, and pace to complete simple, routine tasks in two-hour increments for a normal workday and workweek, with normal breaks; she should not be required to work closely with the general public; and, she should be in a workplace with few changes to the work setting. Tr. 22.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a medical assistant. Tr. 27. At step five, the ALJ relied on a VE, who testified Plaintiff could perform jobs such as kitchen helper (DOT #318.687-010), recycler (DOT #929.687-022), and hand packager (DOT #920.587-018). Tr. 28.

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the claimant was not disabled. Tr. 28. Plaintiff requested review and on December 10, 2018 the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. Tr. 1-7. Plaintiff timely filed this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         The Court will reverse the ALJ's decision only if it was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). The ALJ's decision may not be reversed on account of an error that is harmless. Id. at 1111. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A. Medical Evidence - Consultative Examiner Alexandra Patterson, PsyD

         Dr. Patterson performed a mental evaluation of Plaintiff on May 19, 2016. Tr. 335-339. Plaintiff's objection to the ALJ's handing of Dr. Alexandra Patterson's opinions is two-fold. First, Plaintiff contends that while the ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Patterson's opinion that Plaintiff appeared to be moderately impaired in managing workplace stress, the ALJ failed to include that limitation in her RFC assessment. Second, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Patterson's opinion that Plaintiff “may have difficulty with consistent attendance and timeliness.”

         1. Workplace Stress

         Dr. Patterson found that Plaintiff appeared to be moderately impaired in her ability to complete work-related tasks, maintain relationships with the public, and manage workplace stress. Tr. 339 (citing Ex. 4F/5). The ALJ assigned great weight to this finding, noting that it supported “the RFC's limitation to simple and routine tasks.” Tr. 25. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's “anxiousness on examination, with related panic episodes, and her testimony that she does not feel safe leaving the house, support these final limitations from Dr. Patterson.” Id. Plaintiff contends however, that the ALJ erred because she failed to include any “limitation in the RFC that accounts for [her] limitations in managing workplace stress.”

         “In order for the testimony of a VE to be considered reliable, the hypothetical posed must include all of the claimant's functional limitations, both physical and mental[, ] supported by the record.” Thomas, 278 F.3d at 956 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The ALJ did not err.

         In her RFC assessment, the ALJ noted Plaintiff has “sufficient concentration, persistence, and pace to complete simple routine tasks in two-hour increments for a normal workday and workweek, with normal breaks” and that she “should not be required to work closely with the general public, and should be in a workplace with few changes to the work setting.” Tr. 22. The VE identified three unskilled jobs after being asked to assume a hypothetical individual with these limitations. Tr. 75-77. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not place her in a “low stress” job, but does not define how such a job would differ from those identified by the VE, which all involve the performance of simple, repetitive, and relatively unskilled tasks - along with the additional limitations of not having to work closely with the general public and having few changes in the work setting.

         The ALJ's RFC assessment is also consistent with the opinions of the DDS psychological consultants who found that Plaintiff is capable of performing simple, routine tasks and familiar detailed or complex tasks due to moderately slowed pace and persistence, should not work with the general public in any intense capacity, and would do best with known routines in the workplace. Tr. 25 (citing Ex. 2A/8-10; 4A/10-1). The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's ability on examination, her good fund of knowledge and adequate abstraction abilities, her history of panic attacks and her ability to reduce her medication and extended counseling, all supported these limitations. Thus, the ALJ's conclusions were reasonably supported by the evidence. See Molina, 674 F.3d at 1104 ...


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