United States District Court, D. Nevada
Kenneth S. Joseph, Plaintiff
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Order [## 16, 20, 22]
JENNIFER A. DORSEY, District Judge.
Kenneth Joseph is a Social Security claimant with type-two diabetes mellitus and depressive disorder. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Norman Bennett denied Joseph Social Security benefits because he found that Joseph - despite his condition - can perform a significant number of occupations and thus is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Joseph moves for reversal or remand of the ALJ's decision, and the Commissioner of Social Security crossmoves for its affirmance. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach reviewed the decision and issued a report and recommendation in which he agrees with the ALJ's decision and recommends that I deny Joseph's motion. Joseph offers five objections to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. Having reviewed the record and law, I adopt Judge Ferenbach's report and recommendation and affirm ALJ Bennett's decision to deny Joseph's Social Security benefits claims.
Standard of Review
A disability-benefits claimant initially bears the burden to prove that he cannot "engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Disability is found "only if the impairment is so severe that, considering age, education, and work experience, that person cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." If the claimant can show that he is unable to resume his prior work, the burden shifts to the government to show that the claimant can perform substantial and gainful employment or "a significant number of other jobs" in the national economy.
When reviewing a Social Security benefits denial, the district court applies the de novo standard of review. The district court must determine whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and his legal findings are erroneous. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance - it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion. If evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the decision of the ALJ must be upheld." District courts review the entire record, weighing evidence that both favors and detracts from the administrative decision. Where the evidence could support either affirmation or reversal, "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ."
A magistrate judge may prepare "proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the [matter's] disposition." If any party objects to these findings and recommendations, the district court must review the objections de novo. Where no objections are made, the standard of review is at the district judge's discretion. I evaluate Mr. Joseph's objections on a de novo standard of review and examine the unobjected-to portions of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation for abuse of discretion.
The parties stipulate that the ALJ properly summarized the medical and non-medical evidence in this case, except as specifically challenged in Joseph's motion to reverse. The sole issue on appeal is whether the ALJ had substantial evidence to reject Joseph's subjective symptom testimony. I recognize that the policy behind deference to ALJ decisions is particularly applicable to credibility determinations like this because the ALJ had the opportunity to hear and observe live testimony, while I review this case on the basis of a sterile written record. Joseph offers five objections to Magistrate Judge Ferenbach's report. I address them in turn.
A. First Objection: Elevated Medical Reports
Joseph first objects that, while the ALJ merely discussed medical opinions in the record, Magistrate Judge Ferenbach "elevates a discussion of medical reports into a clear and convincing reason." Even if the magistrate judge did so, he clearly states in the report and recommendation that the court "may not substitute its judgment for the weigh the ALJ gave to the medical source opinion of functionality on the record, " and he deferred to the ALJ's medical findings. Accordingly, the record does not reflect that Magistrate Judge Ferenbach elevated medical opinions beyond the ALJ's treatment of those opinions. This objection is overruled.
B. Second Objection: Generalized Credibility Findings
Joseph next objects that neither the ALJ nor Judge Ferenbach identifies what testimony is and is not credible, even though the law requires ALJs to make specific findings and instructs them that general findings do not suffice. Joseph relies on Ninth Circuit decisions including Reddick v. Chater that disallow general findings on credibility: "rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints."
In his decision, the ALJ specifically found that Joseph's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not credible to the extent they were inconsistent with the [previously discussed] residual functional capacity assessment because they were not supported by the objective medical signs and findings of the record as a whole under SSR 96-7p." The ALJ went on to find that Joseph's counsel's hypothetical question, asking a vocational expert why Joseph missed up to four work days every month, was unsupported by medical evidence because "his conditions were controlled by conservative care, and minimal treatment."
The ALJ went beyond identifying the testimony that undermined Joseph's claim to specify that medical evaluations from Dr. Wilson, Dr. Yao, and Dr. Kamal were "given great weight." In discussing evidence from these doctors, the ALJ found that their opinions were credible because they were "based on a thorough examination of the claimant, given within an area of his expertise, and consistent with the medical evidence." Dr. Mark Evans's opinion was given "some weight" on the issue of affective disorders, while Dr. P. Davis's opinion was given "great weight" on the same issue because the ALJ concluded that, "[b]ased on the claimant's limited social relationships and interactions with others, a finding of moderate' limitation in maintaining social functioning was more appropriate." On this record, I find that the ALJ not ...