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Parrott v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 19, 2019

MARY T. PARROTT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PARTIES' CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF NOS. 13, 18)

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits.[1] In her summary judgment motion, Plaintiff contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to apply the proper standards when evaluating fibromyalgia claims, as well as failing to properly assess other medical and lay opinions. The Commissioner opposed, and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

         After considering the parties' written briefing, the record, and the applicable law, the Court DENIES the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and REMANDS the case for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND AND ALJ'S FIVE-STEP ANALYSIS[2]

         Plaintiff stopped working in July of 2013, and applied for disability insurance benefits on July 28, 2014. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 268.) Plaintiff claimed the following medical conditions: “Fibromyalgia, Depression/anxiety, Lower back arthritis and stenosis, and Chronic Fatigue.” (AT 291.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (AT 154; 164.) Plaintiff, aided by an attorney, sought review of these denials with an ALJ. (AT 178-9.) At a September 22, 2016 hearing, Plaintiff testified about her conditions, and the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding Plaintiff's ability to work. (AT 101-43.) The ALJ conducted another hearing on July 11, 2017, where two (later discredited) physicians and the same vocational expert testified. (AT 37-102.)

         On August 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 17-32.) At step one, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2013, Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (AT 19.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: Fibromyalgia; Degenerative Disc Disease of the Lumbar Spine; Depressive Disorder; Anxiety Disorder; and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (AT 20.) However, the ALJ determined at step three that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (Id.) (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1). Based on this information, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations:

The claimant [can] stand and/or walk for six hours of an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She can sit for six hours of an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. The claimant can occasionally crouch and crawl. She can frequently climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, and kneel. The claimant can tolerate occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(AT 22.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ stated he compared Plaintiff's symptoms to the objective medical evidence in the record, the opinion evidence given by Plaintiff's physicians, and Plaintiff's expressed symptoms. (AT 22-29.) Relevant here, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms [of fibromyalgia, her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (AT 23.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded at steps four and five that while Plaintiff incapable of performing past relevant work, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could still perform given the restrictions detailed in the RFC. (AT 29-30.)

         On August 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-8.) Plaintiff then filed this action within sixty days requesting judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision; the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 1, 13, 18, 19.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision de novo, and should reverse “only if the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard.” Buck v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1048 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; i.e. “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Id. The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion where “the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Further, the court may not reverse the ALJ's decision on account of harmless error. Buck, 869 F.3d at 1048.

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to apply the proper standards when he evaluated her claims--especially in light of the Ninth Circuit's pronouncements regarding fibromyalgia claims. (ECF No. 13.) Broadly speaking, Plaintiff contends the ALJ selectively cited the record in crafting the RFC. Plaintiff asserts the ALJ did so when he failed to offer the appropriate rationale for rejecting Plaintiff's subjective complaints, “provided legally insufficient reasons for rejecting various [medical] opinions, ” and improperly discounted Plaintiff's husband's testimony. Plaintiff maintains that once this evidence is credited as true, the court must remand for benefits. Alternatively, Plaintiff seeks a remand for further proceedings.

         The Commissioner argues that in finding Plaintiff's fibromyalgia was not as disabling as Plaintiff complained, the ALJ properly followed the Agency's regulations--including Social Security Rule 12-2p (“Evaluation of Fibromyalgia”). (ECF No. 18.) The Commissioner contends the assessment of a claimant's RFC, like any disability, requires the ALJ to consider all evidence in the record--including a claimant's subjective symptoms, the entirety of the medical evidence, and any lay opinions. Here, the Commissioner argues the ALJ did in fact consider the entire record, and crafted Plaintiff's RFC to conform to her disabilities. Thus, the Commissioner contends the RFC (and decision as a whole) is supported by substantial evidence, which should result in the ALJ's opinion being affirmed.

         IV. LEGAL STANDARDS

         In Revels v Berryhill, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the standard for evaluating both medical opinions and a claimant's testimony, noted the 2012 “sea-change” regarding fibromyalgia, and applied the standards to fibromyalgia's “unique symptoms and diagnostic methods.” 874 F.3d 648 (9th Cir. 2017). In this case, in addition to reviewing the general standards for social security cases, the Court quotes from Revels at length below--finding it controlling. /// A. Evaluation of a Claimant's Testimony and Third-Party Reports In ...


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