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Glenn v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 2, 2017

George Glenn, Jr., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff George Glenn seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied his disability insurance benefits under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on reversible legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 59 year-old male who previously worked as a warehouse supervisor. A.R. 143, 167. On April 23, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 12, 2012. A.R. 143-44. On April 15, 2015, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 31-55. A vocational expert also testified. A.R. 49-55. On June 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 15-25. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. A.R. 1.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id.

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the Court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) he is not currently working, (2) he has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents his performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets his burden through step three, the Commissioner must find him disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that he is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show in the fifth step that the claimant nonetheless is capable of other work suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 12, 2012. A.R. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy status post surgery, degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine, status post cervical discectomy, knee osteoarthritis, diabetes, and obesity. A.R. 17. Although the ALJ acknowledged that the record contains evidence of hypertension and gastritis, she found that these conditions are not severe impairments. A.R. 18. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. A.R. 18. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, except that Plaintiff cannot operate foot controls with his left foot. A.R. 18. The ALJ then concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he is able to perform past relevant work as a warehouse supervisor. A.R. 24-25.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is based on legal error. Doc. 10 at 1. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (1) improperly discredited his symptom testimony, (2) based her opinion on an incomplete and inaccurate review of the evidence, and (3) improperly discredited the medical opinions of two treating physicians. Id. For reasons stated below, the Court finds no reversible error.

         A. Symptom Testimony.

         In evaluating a claimant's symptom testimony, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014). The claimant is not required to show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptoms she has alleged, only that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptoms. Id. Second, if there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ may reject the claimant's symptom testimony only by giving specific, clear, and convincing reasons. Id. at 1015. “This is not an easy requirement to meet: ‘The clear and convincing standard is the most demanding required in Social Security cases.'” Id. (quoting Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002)).[1]

The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's symptom testimony in her opinion:
At his hearing, the claimant testified that he is unable to walk or sit for extended periods due to bilateral knee pain, which is worse on the left, and back pain. The claimant stated that he only drives short distances. Moreover, the claimant testified that he has to lie down 2 to 3 times a day to stretch. He stated that he uses a recliner 2 to 3 times a day to raise his feet up for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The claimant also reported he can lift 25 to 30 pounds but can only carry up to 15 pounds. Additionally, the claimant said that he cannot tie his shoes on his own and that his wife needs to put on his socks and shoes. In a function report, the claimant stated that he can only walk 100 yards at a time before he needs to rest.

A.R. 19 (internal citation omitted).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible. A.R. 19. Because the ALJ made no finding of malingering, she could discredit the symptom testimony only with clear and convincing reasons. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1015.

         Plaintiff relies on Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487 (9th Cir. 2015), to challenge this credibility determination. In Brown-Hunter, the Ninth Circuit held that an ALJ commits legal error by making a general credibility finding supported only by a recitation of medical evidence. Id. at 489, 494. But that aspect of the Ninth Circuit's holding is distinguishable. Although the ALJ's opinion could have been organized more clearly to highlight its specific reasons, they are identified in the decision: (1) Plaintiff's relatively normal examination results, (2) Plaintiff's ...

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