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Kenneth C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 9, 2019

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

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

          RICHARD A. JONES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff 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 prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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, 21-32.

         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 November 2013 alleged onset date.
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.[2]
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 not disabled.
Step five: The ALJ did not reach step five.

         AR 23-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1.

         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. Plaintiff's Testimony

         At the 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.

         Where, 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.

         1. Mental Health Testimony

         The ALJ 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.

         a. Inconsistent Statements

         In 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.

         Here, 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 limitations.

         The 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.

         Inconsistent statements did not provide a clear and convincing reason to discount Plaintiff's testimony.

         b. ...


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