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Laurence V. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 6, 2020

LAURENCE V., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MICHELLE L. PETERSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in weighing the medical evidence opinion, formulating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and relying on vocational expert (“VE”) testimony. (Dkt. # 16 at 1.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1960, has the equivalent of a high school education, and has worked as a transmission rebuilder. AR at 449, 537, 550, 561. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2010. Id. at 537.

         Plaintiff previously applied for disability benefits in 2011, alleging an onset date of October 28, 2011. AR at 275-92. On April 18, 2013, an ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled and Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. Id. Plaintiff submitted the instant applications for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability as of April 19, 2013. Id. at 436, 449-50, 457-77. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 376-77, 379-80. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on November 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 66-82.

Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:
Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease, left ventricular thrombosis, degenerative disc disease, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Since April 19, 2013, Plaintiff can perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with limitations. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; unlimitedly balance, stoop, and kneel; frequently crouch; occasionally crawl; he would need to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold; is able to work in two hour intervals; is able to complete given tasks by the end of a normal workday; however, requires work that allows for a variable pace; and is able to work in a low stress environment defined as occasional changes in workplace setting.
Step four: Since April 19, 2013, Plaintiff has been unable to perform past relevant work.
Step five: Prior to February 23, 2015, the date Plaintiff's age category changed, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. Plaintiff therefore was not disabled before February 23, 2015. Beginning February 23, 2015, Plaintiff was disabled by direct application of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.06.

Id. at 66-82.

         As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. AR at 14-17. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 16.)

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id.

         “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 determining credibility, 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 Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating the Medical Opinion Evidence

         As a matter of law, more weight is given to a treating physician's opinion than to that of a non-treating physician because a treating physician “is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007). A treating physician's opinion, however, is not necessarily conclusive as to either a physical condition or the ultimate issue of disability, and can be rejected, whether or not that opinion is contradicted. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. If an ALJ rejects the opinion of a treating or examining physician, the ALJ must give clear and convincing reasons for doing so if the opinion is not contradicted by other evidence, and specific and legitimate reasons if it is. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1988). “This can be done by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. (citing Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751). The ALJ must do more than merely state his/her conclusions. “He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Id. (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421-22 (9th Cir. 1988)). Such conclusions must at all times be supported by substantial evidence. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725.

         Opinions from non-examining medical sources are to be given less weight than treating or examining doctors. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. However, an ALJ must always evaluate the opinions from such sources and may not simply ignore them. In other words, an ALJ must evaluate the opinion of a non-examining source and explain the weight given to it. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *2. Although an ALJ generally gives more weight to an examining doctor's opinion than to a non-examining doctor's opinion, a non-examining doctor's opinion may nonetheless constitute substantial evidence if it is consistent with other independent evidence in the record. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Orn, 495 F.3d at 632-33.

         1. The ALJ's ...


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