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Pryor v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 26, 2018

KRISTY LYNN PRYOR, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Kristy Lynn Pryor seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) that plaintiff's disability ended on October 31, 2013, for purposes of receiving Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”) as an adult.[1] Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Commissioner opposed by filing a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 17.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 18.) For the reasons discussed below, the court DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on May 25, 1994; has a high school education; can communicate in English; and has no past relevant work. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 28, 78.)[2] She received SSI benefits based on disability as a child, but after her case was redetermined under the disability rules for adults upon attaining age 18, she was found no longer disabled as of October 31, 2013. (AT 20.) Pursuant to plaintiff's request, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing on January 27, 2015, at which plaintiff, representing herself; plaintiff's mother; and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AT 20, 36-77.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision dated May 4, 2015, determining that plaintiff's disability had ended on October 31, 2013, and that she had not become disabled again since that date. (AT 20-29.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on December 1, 2016. (AT 1-7.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action on December 27, 2016, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred in concluding that plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C; (2) whether the ALJ failed to properly analyze the opinions of the examining and non-examining physicians; (3) whether the ALJ erroneously discounted plaintiff's credibility and the credibility of third party witnesses; (4) whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment was unsupported; (5) whether the VE's testimony was inadequate; and (6) whether the Appeals Council erred by declining review.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). “The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Summary of the ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[3] At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff “attained age 18 on May 24, 2012, and was eligible for supplemental security income benefits as a child for the month preceding the month in which she attained age 18. The claimant was notified that she was found no longer disabled as of October 31, 2013, based on a redetermination of disability under the rules for adults who file new applications.” (AT 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that, since October 31, 2013, plaintiff had the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and seizures. (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that, since October 31, 2013, plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 23.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that since October 31, 2013, the claimant has had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant can perform simple, unskilled work with occasional public and coworker contact and must avoid working at heights, around moving machinery and cannot drive.

(AT 25.) At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had no past relevant work. (AT 28.)Nevertheless, at step five, the ALJ found that since October 31, 2013, in light of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the VE's testimony, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (AT 28-29.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's disability ended on October 31, 2013, and that plaintiff had not become disabled again since that date. (AT 29.)

         Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations Whether the ALJ erred in concluding that plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C

         The claimant “bears the burden of proving that ... she has an impairment that meets or equals the criteria of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the Commissioner's regulations.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 683 (9th Cir. 2005). “For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify...For a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is ‘equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31 (1990). A determination of medical equivalence must rest on objective medical evidence. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 514 (9th Cir. 2001) (“A finding of equivalence must be based on medical evidence only.”); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (“Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings…A generalized assertion of functional problems is not enough to establish disability at step three.”); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(d)(3) (“In considering whether your symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings are medically equal to the symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings of a listed impairment, we will look to see whether your symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings are at least equal in severity to the listed criteria. However, we will not substitute your allegations of pain or other symptoms for a missing or deficient sign or laboratory finding to raise the severity of your impairment(s) to that of a listed impairment.”). Furthermore, “[t]he mere diagnosis of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 is not sufficient to sustain a finding of disability.” Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1549 (9th Cir. 1985). Instead, all of the specified medical criteria must be met or equaled. Id. at 1550.

         In this case, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C for intellectual disability.[4] “A claimant satisfies Listing 12.05C, demonstrating ‘intellectual disability' and ending the five-step inquiry, if [s]he can show (1) subaverage intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested before age 22; (2) a valid IQ score of 60 to 70; and (3) a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation.” Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1174 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 12.05C). The Commissioner concedes that the ALJ's analysis with respect to prongs (2) and (3) was insufficient, but notes that any such insufficiency was inconsequential, because plaintiff has not discharged her burden of showing deficits in adaptive functioning for purposes of prong (1). That argument has merit.

         Deficits in adaptive functioning have been defined as “the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances.” Wood v. Berryhill, 692 Fed. App'x 816, 817 (9th Cir. Jun. 21, 2017) (unpublished) (citing Hall v. Florida. 134 S.Ct. 1986, 1994 (2014)). Here, the consultative examining psychologist, Dr. Joe Azevedo, found that plaintiff had the ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple one-step instructions. (AT 469.) Plaintiff herself reported that she was able to complete all of her own personal grooming and hygiene, played basketball and swam, watched television, could prepare her own meals, and shopped in stores for junk food. (AT 191-92, 465.) She also testified that she had worked for a brief time cleaning offices, ...


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