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Ann H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

December 30, 2019

TABITHA ANN H., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROBERT H. WHALEY Senior United States District Judge

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 12, 13. Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision, which denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401-434, and her application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §1381-1383F. See Administrative Record (AR) at 537-541, 545-564. After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the Court is now fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Jurisdiction and Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on June 23, 2011. AR 84-85, 204-217. In both applications, she alleged disability beginning on November 25, 2009.[1]AR 204, 211. Plaintiffs application was initially denied on July 29, 2011, AR 126-129, and on reconsideration on October 31, 2011. AR 132-135.

         A hearing with Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) R.J. Payne occurred on March 13, 2013. AR 41-53. At the hearing, the psychological expert opined that there was not enough information to determine psychological impairments and requested a consultative psychological evaluation. AR 51-53. Following the evaluation, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing on August 20, 2013. AR 54-83. On September 16, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act and was therefore ineligible for disability benefits or supplemental security income. AR 18-36. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on March 21, 2015, AR 1-6, and Plaintiff filed a complaint in this district challenging the denial of benefits. AR 654-655; see Tabitha Ann H. v. Carolyn W. Colvin, 2:15-cv-00132-RHW, ECF No. 3 (E.D. Wash. 2015).

         Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, arguing the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly discrediting her subjective symptom complaints; (2) failing to properly consider and weigh the medical opinion evidence, specifically the opinions of treating physician Duncan Lahtinen, D.O., examining psychologist John Arnold, Ph.D., and examining psychologist John Severinghaus, Ph.D.; (3) failing to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert to make the step five determination; and (4) not giving controlling weight to Dr. Lahtinen's medical opinion. See Tabitha Ann H., 2:15-cv-00132-RHW, ECF No. 12, at 10-17.

         In July 2016, the Court issued a decision rejecting most of Plaintiff's contentions but agreeing with one. AR 664-673. The Court concluded that the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to Dr. Severinghaus's opinion. AR 672-73. Accordingly, the Court remanded this case to the Commissioner with instructions to credit the opinion of Dr. Severinghaus. AR 674. Upon crediting Dr. Severinghaus's opinion, the Court instructed the ALJ to recalculate the residual functional capacity and then evaluate Plaintiff's ability to perform past relevant work as well as work available in the national economy. AR 674.

         Following the Court's remand, the ALJ held another hearing on March 2, 2017. AR 571-619. On June 16, 2018, the ALJ issued another decision in which he again concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Act and was therefore ineligible for benefits. AR 545-564. On July 10, 2017, Plaintiff submitted written exceptions to the ALJ's decision. AR 751-755. On November 3, 2018, the Appeals Council determined that Plaintiff's exceptions were meritless and declined to assume jurisdiction. AR 537-541. On December 31, 2018, Plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the denial of benefits. ECF No. 1. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims are properly before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         III. Standard of Review

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited, and the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1144, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing § 405(g)). In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). When the ALJ presents a reasonable interpretation that is supported by the evidence, it is not the role of the courts to second-guess it. Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001). Even if the evidence in the record is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, if inferences reasonably drawn from the record support the ALJ's decision, then the court must uphold that decision. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012); see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         IV. Statement of Facts

         The facts of the case are set forth in detail in the transcript of proceedings and only briefly summarized here. Plaintiff was 41 years old on the alleged date of onset, which the regulations define as a younger person. AR 86; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). She attended school through the ninth grade, obtained her GED, and can communicate in English. AR 64, 230-31. Plaintiff has past work as a motel housekeeper and janitor. AR 35, 245-49, 783.

         VI. Issues for Review[2]

         Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision is not free of legal error and not supported by substantial evidence. ECF No. 12 at 18. Specifically, she argues the ALJ: (1) failed to credit Dr. Severinghaus's opinion as required by the Court's prior remand ...


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