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Rael v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

February 27, 2018

JERRI L. RAEL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 15), Cross Motion to Affirm (ECF No. 20).



         This matter involves Plaintiff Jerri Rael's appeal from the Commissioner's final decision denying her social security benefits. Before the Court is Rael's Motion for Reversal or Remand (ECF No. 15) and the Commissioner of Social Security's Motion to Affirm (ECF No. 20). For the reasons stated below the Court recommends denying Rael's motion to reverse or remand and granting the Commissioner's motion to affirm.


         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, 332 (1976). 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) authorizes the district court to review final decisions made by the Commissioner of Social Security.

         The district court will not disturb an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) denial of benefits unless “it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation omitted). When reviewing an ALJ's decision, “the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means, “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion” and is defined as “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance” of evidence. Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation omitted).

         If the evidence could give rise to multiple rational interpretations, the court must uphold the ALJ's conclusion. Burch, 400 F.3d at 679. This means that the Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision 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 “even if the evidence preponderates against” it).


          I. Factual Background

         The ALJ applied the five step sequential analysis pursuant to 20 C.F.R § 404.1520. The ALJ determined that Rael suffered from a severe combination of impairments including ulcerative colitis. (AR 24).[1] The ALJ examined relevant medical evidence including opinions and reports of a treating physician (Dr. Nyamuswa), opinions of examining physicians (Dr. Cabaluna, Dr. Shah, and Dr. Pena), opinions of consulting physicians (Dr. Villaflor and Dr. Arnow), and records of medical treatment and visits to physicians. (AR 24-32). The ALJ determined that Rael maintained the residual functional capacity to work at a sedentary exertion level despite these impairments. (AR 27-33). Since Rael was qualified to work at a sedentary exertion level, she was able to perform her past relevant work as a doctor's office receptionist. (AR 33). The ALJ thus denied her social security benefits. (AR 34).

         Rael argues that the ALJ made three legal errors. (ECF No. 16). Rael first claims that the ALJ committed a legal error when he did not consider work limitations that may result from symptoms of her ulcerative colitis. (ECF No. 16 at 4-8). Rael argues that an impairment cannot be severe without limiting an individual's ability to work. (Id. at 5). Rael asserts that since the ALJ determined that her ulcerative colitis was a severe impairment, it was a legal error for the ALJ to not find any work limitations subject to that impairment. (Id. at 4-8.). Specifically, Rael asserts that the ALJ does not discuss work limitations resulting from diarrhea with fecal urgency. (Id.).

         Rael argues that the ALJ committed a second legal error when he did not afford proper weight to her treating physician's (Gilbert Nyamuswa) opinion. (ECF No. 16 at 11-18). Dr. Nyamuswa submitted a form detailing his opinion on Rael's limitations. (AR 521-523). These limitations included needing unscheduled breaks every hour for twenty minutes, sitting/standing for “far less” than eight hours a day, and at least two absences a month from work. (Id.). Rael argues that this opinion “if properly credited…establishes that Plaintiff is ‘disabled' as the Agency defines that term.” (ECF No. 16 at 11). Rael asserts that since Dr. Nyamuswa was her treating physician, the ALJ should not have disregarded his opinion absent clear and convincing reasons. (Id. at 12-14).

         Rael asserts that the ALJ made a third legal error when he did not consider her “exemplary work history” as a factor in determining her credibility. (Id. at 19-21). Rael argues that the ALJ was required to take into account her work history when assessing the credibility of her testimony on the severity of her symptoms. (Id.).

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not make any legal errors. (ECF No. 20). The Commissioner responds to Rael's first alleged error by arguing that the ALJ had no obligation to include limitations for Rael's diarrhea. (Id. at 3). The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ did not find Rael's ulcerative colitis alone to be a severe impairment, but rather found her combination of impairments to be severe. (Id.). The Commissioner further argues that even if the ALJ had determined the ulcerative ...

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