United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION
AND DISMISSING THE CASE WITH PREJUDICE
RICHARD A. JONES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
seeks review of the denial of his applications for
Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance
Benefits. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by discounting his
testimony, several lay witness statements, and several
medical opinions. Dkt. 11. As discussed below, the Court
AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final
decision and DISMISSES the case with
is currently 53 years old, has a high school education, and
has worked as a spraying machine operator and an automotive
painter. Dkt. 7, Admin. Record (AR) 51, 32. On December 2014,
Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of
November 1, 2013. AR 111. Plaintiff's applications were
denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 109, 110, 133,
134. After the ALJ conducted a hearing in May 2017, the ALJ
issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 43,
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found:
Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the November 2013 alleged
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe
impairments: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety,
and alcohol dependence.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or
equal the requirements of a listed impairment.
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can
perform work at all exertional levels. He can understand,
remember, and apply short and simple instructions and perform
routine, predictable tasks with no fast-paced production
requirements. He can make simple decisions and be exposed to
few workplace changes. He cannot interact with the general
public and can occasionally interact with coworkers.
Step four: Plaintiff can perform past
relevant work as a spraying machine operator II and thus is
Step five: The ALJ did not reach step five.
23-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's
final decision. AR 1.
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).
May 2017 hearing, Plaintiff testified that he has been sober
since August 2016. AR 64. Nevertheless, his anxiety and
depression remain severe and have even gotten worse.
Id. Therapy and medication have provided little
help. AR 64-65. Several times a week, Plaintiff has panic
attacks with symptoms of “extreme worry, extreme
anxiety, fear sometimes.” AR 94. He rarely socializes
and can barely tolerate ten minutes at the grocery store
several days per week. AR 71-72, 74. Three or four times a
year for four to five days at a time, he has “extreme
pain” in his back that prevents him from sitting,
standing, or walking. AR 90-92.
as here, an ALJ determines a claimant has presented objective
medical evidence establishing underlying impairments that
could cause the symptoms alleged, and there is no affirmative
evidence of malingering, the ALJ can only discount the
claimant's testimony as to symptom severity by providing
“specific, clear, and convincing” reasons that
are supported by substantial evidence. Trevizo, 871
F.3d at 678.
Mental Health Testimony
discounted Plaintiff's mental health testimony because he
made inconsistent statements to providers, he had “a
good therapeutic response to treatment when he was compliant,
” his mental status findings were frequently normal,
and he sought disability benefits only after exhausting
unemployment benefits. AR 27-29.
evaluating a claimant's “statements about the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms,
” the Commissioner directs ALJs to “consider the
consistency of the individual's own statements.”
SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 at *8 (S.S.A. 2017). ALJs
“must limit their evaluation to the individual's
statements about his or her symptoms and the evidence in the
record that is relevant to the individual's impairments.
In evaluating an individual's symptoms, [ALJs] will not
assess an individual's overall character or
truthfulness….” Id. at *11.
the only inconsistent statement the ALJ identified was in a
treatment note for Plaintiff's alcohol dependency
assessment on September 3, 2015. AR 27-28 (citing AR 716).
The provider wrote that Plaintiff “initially was
reporting abstinence however when he learned that he would be
providing a [sample for urinalysis] he asked ‘is it too
late to be honest'?” and then stated that he drank
on August 24, more than a week earlier. AR 716. The ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff had “minimized or made false
statements to treating medical source [sic]
concerning the extent of his alcohol abuse.” AR 27. The
ALJ did not, however, explain how this incident was relevant
to evaluating Plaintiff's symptoms. There is no dispute
that Plaintiff has been sober since at least October 2016 and
that alcohol abuse is not material to the determination of
disability. AR 28. Thus, even if Plaintiff gave inconsistent
statements when he was still addicted to alcohol, the ALJ did
not explain how those statements were relevant to evaluating
Plaintiff's testimony in May 2017 or his current
Commissioner argues that a “lack of candor … can
carry over to descriptions of symptoms.” Dkt. 12 at 3
(citing Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959). In
Thomas, the court upheld an ALJ's rejection of
claimant testimony based on poor work history prior to
alleged disability, activities contradicting her testimony,
and several wholly contradictory statements about drug use.
Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959. Thomas does not
stand for the proposition that one ambiguous instance of lack
of candor about alcohol use is a clear and convincing reason
to discount unrelated claimant testimony.
statements did not provide a clear and convincing reason to
discount Plaintiff's testimony.