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Holladay v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 10, 2019

Krystine Betty Holladay, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Krystine Betty Holladay's Application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) under the Social Security Act (the Act). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 14, Pl. Br.), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 15, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 16, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision (R. at 14-32).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application on January 6, 2015 for a period of disability beginning on January 10, 2005. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 19, 2015, and upon reconsideration on January 27, 2016. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff then testified at a video hearing held before the ALJ on September 18, 2017. (R. at 17.) On December 27, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 14-32.) This decision became final on August 28, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-3.)

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following severe impairments: “affective disorder; anxiety disorder; bipolar disorder with psychotic features, most recent episode depressed.” (R. at 19.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 27.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 19.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can perform simple and some complex tasks; she can do work where she can relate to others on a superficial work basis, meaning the contact required should be no more than occasional interaction; she can adapt to work situations with forewarning; and she can perform work that is not pace work or [has] no pace work requirement.” (R. at 21.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has no past relevant work but can perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (R. at 26.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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. Generally, “[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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ improperly discredited Plaintiff's symptom testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected lay witness testimony; and (3) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff's RFC. The Court rejects each of Plaintiff's arguments.

         A. The ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff's symptom testimony.

         The ALJ provided the following reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony: (1) Plaintiff's records indicate that her symptoms improved; (2) Plaintiff's daily activities were inconsistent with her purported limitations; and (3) Plaintiff's treatment records did not document significant functional limitations. (R. at 22-23.)

         While credibility is the province of the ALJ, an adverse credibility determination requires the ALJ to provide “specific, clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of the claimant's symptoms.” Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 775 F.3d 1090, 1102 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996)). When evaluating credibility, the “ALJ may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the ALJ may consider the lack of ...


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