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Nelson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

August 6, 2013

Lydia S. Nelson, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

G. MURRAY SNOW, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Lydia Nelson, who challenges the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the SSA.

BACKGROUND

Nelson claims that she has been disabled since August 19, 2008. (R. at 23.) Prior to the onset of her alleged disability, Nelson worked as a copier. ( Id. at 27.) She submitted a Title II application for disability and disability benefits on September 18, 2008. ( Id. at 21.) The SSA denied her claims on October 2, 2008, and again upon reconsideration on July 20, 2009. ( Id. ) Nelson subsequently requested a hearing, which was held on February 9, 2011, in Phoenix, Arizona. ( Id. ) On February 24, 2011, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a decision finding that Nelson was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. ( Id. at 28.)

To determine whether Nelson was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step analysis detailed at 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a).[2] (R. at 22.) He determined at the first step that Nelson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 19, 2008, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 23.) The ALJ then found that Nelson had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the SSA's listed impairments. ( Id. at 23-24.)

At that point, the ALJ made a determination of Nelson's residual functional capacity (RFC), [3] concluding that she could "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations: only simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-pace production requirements and involving only work-related decisions with few, if any workplace changes." ( Id. at 24-25.) Still at step four, the ALJ concluded that Nelson was capable of performing her past work as a copier. ( Id. at 27.) The ALJ therefore did not reach step five. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. ( Id. at 1-4.)

Nelson filed the Complaint in this action on July 13, 2012, seeking the Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter became fully briefed on May 24, 2013. (Docs. 13, 14, 20.)

DISCUSSION

I. LEGAL STANDARD

A reviewing federal court will address only those issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits when that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. (quotation omitted). It "is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted).

The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). "When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion." Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because "[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).

Harmless errors in the ALJ's decision do not warrant reversal. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055-56 (9th Cir. 2006). Errors are harmless if they are "inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). In other words, harmless error occurs when the record shows that "the ALJ would have reached the same result absent the error" or "it was clear [the errors] did not alter the ALJ's decision." Id. "[T]he burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination." Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009).

II. ANALYSIS

Nelson argues that the ALJ erred by: (A) accepting certain medical source opinions that actually supported a claim of disability, (B) rejecting the opinions of Nelson's treating psychiatrist and nurse practitioner that Nelson's symptoms prevented her from working, (C) discounting Nelson's own testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms, and (D) failing to discuss a Third Party Report from Nelson's friend.

A. Accepted Medical Source Opinions

The ALJ ultimately found that Nelson had the RFC "to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: only simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-pace production requirements and involving only work-related decisions with few, if any workplace changes." (R. at 25.) The ALJ relied both on the VE's testimony that an individual with Nelson's RFC would be able to perform Nelson's past work as a copier, and ...


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