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Pedersen v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 25, 2019

KIM PEDERSEN, Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          ORDER ACCEPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION, DENYING MOTION FOR REMAND, AND GRANTING MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF NOS. 15, 16, 22]

          ANDREW P. GORDON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Kim Pedersen filed an application for disability insurance on November 19, 2015 alleging she is mentally and physically disabled. The Social Security Administration denied Pedersen’s application both when she filed it and on reconsideration. Administrative Law Judge Christopher Daniels held a hearing in August 2017 and ruled that Pedersen was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Pedersen’s request for review in February 2018. The ALJ’s decision therefore became the Commissioner’s final decision. Pedersen now seeks review of that decision, arguing that I should reverse it or remand the case for further proceedings before the Commissioner.

         On March 21, 2019, Magistrate Judge Koppe recommended that I deny Pedersen’s motion to remand and grant the defendant’s motion to affirm. ECF No. 22. Pedersen objects, arguing that the ALJ: (1) improperly determined that Pedersen’s mental impairments were not severe and wrongly rejected the opinion of Pedersen’s treating doctor; (2) improperly discounted Pedersen’s testimony; (3) improperly rejected lay testimony; and (4) improperly relied on incomplete and flawed testimony from a vocational expert. Having reviewed the record de novo, I agree with Judge Koppe so I deny the motion for remand and grant the motion to affirm.

         I. DISCUSSION

         When a party objects to a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation on a dispositive issue, the district court must conduct a de novo review of the challenged findings and recommendations. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The district judge “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge, ” “receive further evidence, ” or “recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The review of an ALJ’s decision to deny benefits is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether the ALJ applied the appropriate legal standards. Jamerson v. Chafer, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997). I may set aside the ALJ’s determination only if the ALJ’s finding is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Id. “Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance”; it is evidence that “a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Smolet v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996) (quotations omitted). If the evidence is subject to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ’s decision, I must affirm. See Morgan v, Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). I have the authority to enter “a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). I also may order the Commissioner to collect additional evidence, “but only upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” Id.

         Pedersen is entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act if she “(a) suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months; and (b) the impairment renders the claimant incapable of performing the work that [she] previously performed and incapable of performing any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)). If Pedersen demonstrates that she cannot perform her prior work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that Pedersen can perform a significant number of other jobs that exist in the national economy. Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074-75 (9th Cir. 2007).

         A. Medical Evidence

         The ALJ concluded that Pedersen’s mental impairments were not severe because her medical records did not reveal disabling limitations. ECF No. 14-1 at 26-29. Instead, the records revealed a lack of treatment that is “wholly inconsistent with her allegations of disabling mental symptoms.” Id. at 28. Magistrate Judge Koppe concluded that this decision was supported by substantial evidence because: (1) the medical records support the ALJ’s conclusion, (2) the ALJ properly gave weight to the opinions of state agency doctors, and (3) the ALJ properly found that the medical records contradicted the opinion of Pedersen’s treating psychiatrist Dr. William Slagle. ECF No. 22 at 7-9. Pedersen objects, arguing that the medical records demonstrate that her impairments were severe and that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Slagle’s opinion.

         “[T]he opinion of the treating physician is not necessarily conclusive as to either the physical condition or the ultimate issue of disability.” Morgan, 169 F.3d at 600. However, the ALJ “must present clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontroverted opinion of a claimant’s physician.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002).

         The ALJ gave no weight to Dr. Slagle’s letter because his “own reports fail to reveal the type of significant clinical and laboratory abnormalities one would expect if the claimant were in fact disabled.” ECF No. 14-1 at 28. Indeed, Dr. Slagle’s notes show Pedersen’s subjective complaints, few clinical findings, and normal mental status examinations. Id. at 588-590. The ALJ’s decision to give no weight to Dr. Slagle’s letter is consistent with Pedersen’s other medical records showing that her clinical examinations were unremarkable and that her doctors had ruled out a major disorder. Id. at 27-28. And the ALJ noted Dr. Slagle’s opinion that Pedersen was disabled was not based on the standard applicable in this case, because Dr. Slagle drafted the letter in support of Pedersen’s application for an emotional support animal. ECF No. 14-1 at 28. The ALJ gave “clear and convincing” reasons to discredit Dr. Slagle’s opinion, and his conclusion that Pedersen’s impairments were not severe was supported by substantial evidence.

         B. Pedersen’s Testimony

         The ALJ “considered, but granted, [sic] little probative weight” to Pedersen’s testimony because her “activities of daily living in conjunction with the medical evidence demonstrating minimal abnormalities . . . reflects a significant functional capacity and not an individual unable to sustain regular and continuing work due to medically determinable impairments.” ECF No. 14-1 at 34. Magistrate Judge Koppe found that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. ECF No. 22 at 10-12. Pedersen objects, contending that the ALJ did not apply the appropriate standard and erroneously found that her statements were inconsistent with her medical records. ECF No. 23 at 6-9.

         A claimant’s statements as to pain or other symptoms cannot, alone, be conclusive evidence of disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). The ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis to determine whether a claimant’s testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible. Lingerfelter v. Astrue,504 F.3d 1028, 1035-36 (9th Cir. 2007). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to induce the pain or other symptoms that she has alleged. Id. Second, “[i]f the claimant meets the first test and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can only reject the claimant’s testimony ...


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