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Reed v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 30, 2019

Charles Evan Reed, Jr., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable Susan M. Brnovich United States District Judge

         Pending before the court is Plaintiff Charles Evan Reed Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (the “Commissioner”) denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits.

         I. Background

         On March 25, 2011, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) delivered an order finding Plaintiff was not disabled, but “limited to simple, routine work.” R. at 105. Thereafter, on December 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed an additional application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits, alleging the severity of his impairment had increased since being denied Supplemental Security Income Benefits in March 2011. R. at 16. On July 7, 2016, an ALJ again found Plaintiff was not disabled, reasoning Plaintiff had failed to prove a change in circumstances related to his mental impairments sufficient to overcome the presumption of continuing nondisability, and adopting the prior residual functional capacity of “simple, routine work.” Id. at 13, 21.

         II. Legal Standard

         Generally, an ALJ's disability determination should be upheld if it is both free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). 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).

         An ALJ's determinations, including the finding of a plaintiff's residual functional capacity, “are entitled to some res judicata consideration in subsequent proceedings.” Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691, 694 (9th Cir. 1988).

[A]n ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled “create[s] a presumption that [the claimant] continued to be able to work after that date.” Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 848 (9th Cir.1985). The presumption does not apply, however, if there are “changed circumstances.” Taylor v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 1985). An increase in the severity of the claimant's impairment would preclude the application of res judicata. Id.

Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 827 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended (Apr. 9, 1996). “Once the claimant overcomes the presumption of nondisability, she must then prove that she is in fact disabled.” Schneider v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 974 (9th Cir. 2000).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed materially harmful error by: (1) rejecting Reed's symptom testimony in the absence of specific, clear, and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole; (2) rejecting assessments by treating psychologists Janice Cochran, M.D., and Monica Faria, M.D.; and (3) concluding Reed's changed circumstances were not sufficient to overcome the presumption that he was not disabled.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Rejecting Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         “In evaluating the credibility of a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis.” Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). “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 citation omitted). “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. In weighing a claimant's credibility, the ALJ may consider inconsistencies between his testimony and his conduct, his work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which he complains. See Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284 (citations omitted). “The information that your medical sources or nonmedical sources provide about your pain or other symptoms is also an important indicator of the intensity and persistence of your symptoms.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(3). In determining the extent to which symptoms affect capacity to perform basic work activities, the court will consider all available evidence and evaluate the claimant's statements in relation to the objective medical evidence, accounting for any inconsistencies in the evidence and conflicts between the claimant's statements and statements by his medical sources. 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(4).

         Here, the ALJ provided specific, clear, and convincing reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's testimony by stating that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were not supported by the evidence to the extent they were inconsistent with the residual functional capacity assessment, R. at 23, and then elaborating on the remark. The ALJ properly cited evidence of Dr. Reynolds' treatment records as an indicator of Plaintiff's symptoms, stating Plaintiff continued to have seizures, but they were mostly nocturnal, occurred only a couple times a month, lasted only 10 to 30 minutes, and were less frequent when taking medication. Id. at 23-24, 28 (citing R. at 850-76 (noting that on January 2, 2014, Plaintiff had “[n]o seizure events since starting the PHB [medication]” after his prior visit on November 19, 2013); R. at 1038-39 (noting Plaintiff's seizures occurred about 5 times per month and average duration of symptoms was 10 to 30 minutes)). The ALJ also properly cited evidence of Dr. De Marte's evaluation that there was no delusional theme surrounding his hallucinations, noting that “these responses are typically found in individual[s] who exaggerate their symptoms.” Id. at 26. Furthermore, the ALJ noted ...

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