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Hofberger v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 8, 2018

Josephine Hofberger, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Josephine Hofberger's (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Acting Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”) denial of her application for a period of disability under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(i) (2012). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in improperly assessing the credibility of Plaintiff's allegations, improperly rejecting the opinion of a treating physician, and misidentifying Plaintiff's severe medical impairments. (Doc. 23 at 1-2). Additionally, Plaintiff moves to amend her complaint to clarify the dates for which she is seeking disability benefits. The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal and Plaintiff's motion.

         I. Background

         The parties are familiar with the background information in this case, and it is summarized in the ALJ's decision. (See Doc. 10 at 23-34). Accordingly, the Court will reference the background only as necessary to the decision below.

         II. Legal Standard

         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (citations omitted). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). In other words, substantial evidence means “relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion.” Id.

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court weighs “both the evidence that supports and [that which] detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750 (citations omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (internal citations omitted). “The trier of fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the 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).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and the decision is free from legal error, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). The Court, however, “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled; rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         A. Definition of Disability

         To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must be “under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E) (2012). The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         A person is “under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.”[1] Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To evaluate a claim of disability, the Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (2016); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. A finding of “not disabled” at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner in the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the inquiry moves to step two, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must “significantly limit[] [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ”[2] id. § 404.1520(c), and must either have lasted for “a continuous period of at least twelve months, ” be expected to last for such a period, or be expected “to result in death, ” id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. If, however, the ALJ finds a severe impairment, the inquiry moves to step three, which requires determining whether the impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry. Id. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) is the most she can still do despite all her impairments, including those that are not severe, and any related symptoms. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step four the ALJ determines whether, based on the RFC assessment, the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant, based on the RFC assessment and her “age, education, and work experience, ” can make an adjustment to other work that exists in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can perform other work, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform other work, she will be found disabled. Id.

         In evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case record. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(3).

         C. The ALJ's Evaluation Under the Five-Step Process

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 26, 2013 (the alleged onset date), and had two severe impairments, [3] satisfying the first and second steps of the inquiry. (Doc. 10-3 at 16, 18-22). Under step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the listed impairments in the Social Security regulations that automatically result in a finding of disability. (Id. at 22).

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC determination in light of proffered testimony and objective medical evidence. (Id. at 23-32). The ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b)” with certain exceptions. (Id. at 23-32).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 32-33). At step five, the ALJ determined that, based on the RFC assessment and Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” (Id. at 33-34). Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id. at 34).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in denying her benefits for three reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly assessed the credibility of Plaintiff's testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of a treating physician; and (3) the ALJ misidentified Plaintiff's severe medical impairments. (Doc. 23 at 1-2). The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Whether the ALJ Improperly Discredited Plaintiff's Testimony

         The Court first turns to Plaintiff's argument that “the ALJ erred by failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting the claimant's testimony, ” (Doc. 11 at 19), when the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's testimony was “not entirely credible, ” (Doc. 10-3 at 25).

         1. Legal Standard

         “In assessing the credibility of a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or the intensity of symptoms, the ALJ engages in a two-step analysis.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012). First, “the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “The claimant, however, need not show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptom she has alleged; she need only show that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptom.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The ALJ, therefore, cannot reject a claimant's subjective symptom testimony “simply because there is no showing that the impairment can reasonably produce the degree of symptom alleged.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

         “Second, if the claimant meets this first test, and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “The clear and convincing standard is the most demanding required in Social Security cases.” Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, “[g]eneral findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The ALJ may consider, among other factors: “[a claimant's] reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies either in [her] testimony or between [her] testimony and [her] conduct, [her] daily activities, [her] work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which [she] complains.” Light v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997). “If the ALJ's credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the Court] may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).

         2. Analysis

         In the present case, there is no dispute that Plaintiff “has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged, ” fulfilling step one of the credibility analysis. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036; (Doc. 19 at 6). It is also undisputed that there is no affirmative evidence of malingering. (Doc. 19 at 6). The ALJ, therefore, was required provide “specific, clear and convincing reasons” for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony about the severity of her symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's credibility analysis is not supported by clear and convincing reasons. (Doc. 11 at 19). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her analysis of Plaintiff's medical evidence, her work activity, and her statements and ...


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