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Jessica R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 10, 2020

JESSICA R., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not err in assessing Plaintiff's testimony or the opinion of examining physician Dr. Wu. Accordingly, the ALJ's finding of non-disability is supported by substantial evidence, and the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         On October 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of October 20, 2014. AR 60, 340-41, 342-43. Her application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. AR 60. An initial hearing was held before ALJ Ilene Sloan on September 27, 2017. AR 99-132. ALJ Sloan held a supplemental hearing on March 14, 2018, at which a vocational expert and medical experts W. Benton Boone, M.D., and Allan Duby, M.D. also testified. AR 133-67. In a decision dated May 31, 2018, ALJ Sloan found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 57-75. The Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 29, 2019. AR 1-7. The ALJ's decision of May 31, 2018 is the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting Plaintiff's testimony; and (2) failing to properly assess opinion evidence from examining physician Lisa Wu, M.D. Dkt. 10, pp. 2-13.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if 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 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's testimony.

         Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ erred in evaluating her testimony concerning the impact of her eye impairment and degenerative disc disease, as well as the significance of her ability to perform certain activities of daily living. Dkt. 10, pp. 4-13.

         In weighing a Plaintiff's testimony, an ALJ must use a two-step process. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 678 (9th Cir. 2017). First, the ALJ must determine whether there is objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the alleged symptoms. Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014). If the first step is satisfied, and provided there is no evidence of malingering, the second step allows the ALJ to reject the claimant's testimony of the severity of symptoms if the ALJ can provide specific findings and clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony. Id.

         A. Light Sensitivity and Eye Fatigue.

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by not explaining why she was rejecting Plaintiff's allegations concerning light sensitivity and eye fatigue. Dkt. 10, pp. 6-8. Plaintiff testified as to her light sensitivity, and stated that she has to take frequent breaks from her coursework due to eye fatigue and her other impairments. AR 108-11.

         In evaluating Plaintiff's eye impairment, the ALJ provided a detailed discussion of Plaintiff's allegations concerning light sensitivity and eye fatigue, as well as her treatment history from 2015 through 2017. AR 66-69. The ALJ, citing the record and testimony from medical expert Dr. Boone, a board-certified ophthalmologist, noted that Plaintiff's visual acuity ranged from about 20/70 in one eye at worst and 20/25 in one eye at best. AR 68, 138-41, 1072-76.

         The ALJ noted that there was no evidence that Plaintiff had difficulty moving about the office due to her vision problems, was able to drive when necessary, and had glasses and a digital hand scanner that helped manage her symptoms. AR 68-69; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(iv) (the effectiveness of medication and treatment are relevant to the evaluation of a claimant's alleged symptoms); see also Wellington v. Berryhill, 878 F.3d 867, 876 (9th Cir. 2017); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 750-51 (9th Cir.2007) (stating that “evidence of ‘conservative treatment' is sufficient to discount a claimant's testimony regarding severity of an impairment”).

         The ALJ assigned “great weight” to Dr. Boone's opinion, and incorporated all the medically determinable visual impairments cited by Dr. Boone as severe impairments at step two of the sequential evaluation. AR 62-63, 71-72, 139-40. The ALJ also incorporated all the visual limitations assessed by Dr. Boone into Plaintiffs residual functional capacity. AR 65, 141-42.

         The ALJ reasoned that Dr. Boone was a board-certified ophthalmologist who reviewed the entire medical record, explained his conclusions in detail during the hearing, and offered an opinion that was consistent with the medical record. AR 72, 138-41; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) (“The better an explanation a source provides for a medical opinion, the more weight we will give that medical opinion.”); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(5) (“We generally give more weight to the medical opinion of a specialist about medical issues related to his or her area of specialty than to the medical opinion of a source who is not a specialist); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(6) (“the extent to which ...

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