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Hillen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 12, 2017

CHADD M. HILLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

          Cam Ferenbach United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter involves Plaintiff Chadd Hillen's appeal from the Commissioner's final decision denying Hillen's social security benefits. Before the Court are Hillen's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 25) and the Commissioner's Cross-Motion to Affirm (ECF No. 27). For the reasons stated below, the Court recommends denying Hillen's Motion and granting the Commissioner's Motion.

         Standard of Review

         The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from depriving persons of property without due process of law. U.S. Const. amend. V. Social security claimants have a constitutionally protected property interest in social security benefits. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976); Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1203 (9th Cir. 1990). Where, as here, the Commissioner of Social Security renders a final decision denying a claimant's benefits, the Social Security Act authorizes the District Court to review the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (permitting the District Court to refer matters to a U.S. Magistrate Judge).

         The District Court's review is limited. Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (“[I]t is usually better to minimize the opportunity for reviewing courts to substitute their discretion for that of the agency.” (quoting Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014))). The Court examines the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and (2) the decision is supported by “substantial evidence.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). This means such relevant “evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938); Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014).

         If the evidence supports more than one interpretation, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation. (See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). This means that the Commissioner's decision will be upheld if it has any support in the record. See, e.g., Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1988) (stating that the court may not reweigh evidence, try the case de novo, or overturn the Commissioner's decision if the evidence preponderates against it).

         Discussion

         In this case, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) followed the five-step sequential evaluation process in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ concluded Hillen did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the relevant timeframe. (ECF No. 16 at 21). The ALJ found Hillen suffered from medically determinable severe impairments consisting of degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, psoriatic arthritis in multiple joints and obesity, but the impairments did not meet or equal any “listed” impairment under 20 C.F.R.. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 21-23). The ALJ concluded Hillen retained the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work, which would allow Hillen to perform past relevant work. (Id. at 23-25).

         Though not explicitly stated, Hillen appears to limit his appeal to the ALJ's assessment of Hillen's residual functional capacity. Hillen does not assert that he suffered from additional medically determinable severe impairments or that his impairments equaled a “listed” impairment. Instead, Hillen appeals the ALJ's decision on two grounds relating to Hillen's ability to work. First, Hillen argues the ALJ failed to articulate specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the treating physician's opinion. (Id. at 5). Second, Hillen argues the ALJ failed to articulate clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Hillen's testimony. (Id. at 11).

         I. Discounting the Treating Physician's Opinion

         In concluding that Hillen is capable of performing sedentary work, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Dr. Allen, the treating physician. (Id. at 25). Dr. Allen opined that Hillen can sit for one hour within an eight-hour workday, [1] stand and/or walk less than two hours in an eight-hour workday, lift and/or carry up to ten pounds occasionally, never climb or balance, and do only limited reaching and handling. (Id. at 473-474).

         Hillen asserts the ALJ's reasons for giving Dr. Allen's opinion little weight “does not reach the level of specificity required.” (ECF No. 15 at 6-8). Hillen further argues the ALJ inserted his personal bias in rejecting Dr. Allen's course of treatment and failed to explain why the ALJ's interpretation, rather than the treating physician's interpretation, was correct. (Id. at 8-10).

         A treating physician's medical opinion as to the nature and severity of an individual's impairment is entitled to controlling weight when that opinion is well-supported and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. See, e.g., Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2001).

         If an ALJ opts to not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ must apply the factors set out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)(i)-(ii) and (c)(3)-(6) in determining how much weight to give the opinion, including length of treatment relationship and frequency of examination. The opinion of a treating physician is not necessarily conclusive as to the existence of an impairment or ...


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