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Suhin S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 27, 2019

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

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

          Brian A. Tsuchida Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff appeals the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income, contending that the ALJ erred by misevaluating (1) his symptom testimony and (2) the opinions of a treating psychiatrist and examining psychologists. Dkt. 10. The Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a 47-year old man whose primary language is Mien, immigrated from Laos in 1988, and has worked past jobs as a furniture assembler and a material handler. Tr. 41, 59-60, 557, 585. Although he alleges disability beginning in January 2010, he was previously denied benefits in September 2014, a decision that was not appealed. Tr. 30. Plaintiff filed his current SSI application on February 25, 2015, which was used as the relevant date for consideration. Tr. 31.

         The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairments of bony callus in the right shoulder, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and alcohol abuse disorder. Tr. 33. The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with additional restrictions, including no loud, sudden banging noises and a limitation to simple, routine tasks with simple, short instructions. Tr. 35-36. Although the ALJ found that plaintiff could not return to his past work, he determined that plaintiff could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 41-43. The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 43.

         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).

         On appeal, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's evaluation of his testimony and the medical opinions only with respect to the impact of PTSD and depression. Plaintiff has not, however, demonstrated that the ALJ's decision was unsupported by substantial evidence, the result of harmful legal error, or unreasonable.

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to provide specific, clear and convincing reasons to discount his testimony about the severity of his mental limitations. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). The Court disagrees.

         The ALJ discounted plaintiff's testimony about the severity of his limitations stemming from depression and PTSD because his statements about debilitating mental limitations were inconsistent with the medical record. Tr. 38; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(2)-(c)(4) (evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms by viewing statements, medical evidence, and other evidence). First, the ALJ noted that although his primary allegation referred to psychological impairment, clinical findings generally indicated that he was fully oriented with intact memory and good attention/concentration and insight/judgment. Id.; see Tr. 346, 389, 441, 538, 547, 569- 70, 762, 773, 786. Second, the ALJ noted that when plaintiff engaged in mental-health treatment, this appeared to be successful in reducing his symptoms. Tr. 38. Plaintiff began trauma therapy with a social worker in October 2014 and initially showed low engagement. Tr. 425, 447. Nonetheless, in January 2015, plaintiff reported improvement in symptoms due to counseling and medication. Tr. 382. On March 9, 2015, plaintiff reported “that PTSD, [] Depression, and GAD symptoms, and Sleep concerns have all resolved[] and he has met his counseling[] goals.” Tr. 351. However, on March 10, 2015, plaintiff told another clinician that while his PTSD symptoms had improved, he wanted to see another therapist. Tr. 346. Although plaintiff then saw Arthur Leonard Lewy, Ph.D., several times, it did not appear that he returned after a July 2015 appointment. Tr. 687, 715. Third, the ALJ noted that plaintiff's non-compliance with therapy and medication, both of which were shown to be effective, possibly stemmed from reasons not connected to depression and PTSD. Tr. 38-39. For example, plaintiff continued to present regularly to other providers, including his psychiatrist, while not showing up for therapy appointments with Dr. Lewy. Tr. 38; see, e.g., Tr. 636, 687, 702. The ALJ questioned whether this reluctance to see Dr. Lewy might be connected to Dr. Lewy's choice to monitor plaintiff's alcohol use and to discuss how not working was related to plaintiff's low mood.[1] Tr. 38-39; see Tr. 715. Similarly, while plaintiff stated that he was non-compliant with taking his anti-depressants due to sedative effects, he did not inform a provider of this side effect until 2017, at which time his medications were shifted, resulting in greater effectiveness. Tr. 38, see Tr. 772, 776, 781.

         The Court finds that the inconsistency between plaintiff's testimony and the medical evidence constitutes a specific, clear and convincing reason for discounting the severity of plaintiff's allegations of debilitating depression and PTSD. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have concluded that normal mental status exams were consistent with debilitating mental limitations, should have focused on plaintiff's continued limitations rather than on improvement with medication, and should have considered his reasons for not taking his medications consistently. Plaintiff's arguments for a contrary interpretation of the medical evidence do not undermine the ALJ's reasonable inferences. See Shaihabi v. Berryhill, 883 F.3d 1102, 1108 (9th Cir. 2018). Plaintiff has not indicated how the evidence demonstrates that plaintiff's resistance to treatment was attributable to his mental impairments, rather than his personal preferences, such that the ALJ could reasonably infer that his reluctance to attend therapy and to take effective medications indicated that his mental limitations were less severe than he alleged. See Molina, 674 F.3d at 1114. This is not a case in which plaintiff's testimony was rejected merely because his mental limitations waxed and waned during treatment and the ALJ picked out a few isolated instances of improvement over a period of months or years to treat them as a basis for concluding plaintiff was capable of working. See, e.g., Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1017 (9th Cir. 2014). Rather, the ALJ noted, for example, the effectiveness of sleep medications that were taken sporadically even when there were no negative interactions with other drugs, Tr. 38, 441, 461, 507, 791-92; and it took years for plaintiff to report side effects from an antidepressant even though, once his medications were corrected, his symptoms of PTSD were “well-controlled, ” Tr. 38, 776; see, e.g., Tr. 772, 781, 788. Moreover, plaintiff's testimony about the severity of his mental limitations should be viewed in the context of the ALJ's unchallenged rejection of his testimony about the severity of his physical limitations because, among other things, although he claimed he could not lift 20 pounds, during a physical exam he had full strength in his arms and normal shoulder range of motion, compare Tr. 71 with Tr. 562, and though he claimed that long-term, significant shoulder pain kept him from working, the record showed that he hunted, fished, gardened, collected mushrooms, and performed chores, Tr. 350, 455, 457, 514, 557-58, 579, 584, 586, 721, 761, 785. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 636 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding that factors that an ALJ may consider in weighing a claimant's credibility include reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies in testimony or between testimony and conduct, daily activities, and unexplained or inadequately explained failure to seek treatment or follow a prescribed course of treatment).

         The ALJ did not harmfully err as a matter of fact or law in discounting the severity of plaintiff's testimony about his mental limitations.

         2. Med ...


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