United States District Court, D. Alaska
RUSSEL HOLLAND, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
an action for judicial review of the denial of disability
benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff
Elizabeth Mayeda-Williams has timely filed her opening brief,
which defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration, has timely responded. Oral argument was not
requested and is not deemed necessary.
November 26, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for
disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the
Social Security Act, alleging that she became disabled on
October 15, 2012. Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled due
to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, polyarphralgia, anxiety, and
Chiara malformation. Plaintiff's applications were denied
initially. Plaintiff requested a hearing. After an
administrative hearing on March 15, 2015, an administrative
law judge (ALJ) denied plaintiff's applications.
Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's unfavorable
decision. On June 7, 2016, the Appeals Council vacated the
ALJ's decision and remanded the matter to the ALJ for
further consideration. After another administrative hearing
on March 15, 2017, the ALJ again denied plaintiff's
applications. Plaintiff again sought review of the ALJ's
unfavorable decision. On June 8, 2018, the Appeals Council
denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the
ALJ's April 27, 2017 decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. On June 22, 2018, plaintiff commenced this
action in which she asks the court to review the
Commissioner's final decision.
was born on May 14, 1965. She was 49 years old at the time of
the first administrative hearing. Plaintiff has a college
education. Plaintiff's past relevant work includes work
as a computer lab assistant; an accounting clerk, tech,
manager, and supervisor; a property finance analyst; a grant
manager; a payroll accountant; a receiving clerk; a building
monitor; a receptionist; and an office manager.
first determined that plaintiff met “the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
then applied the five-step sequential analysis used to
determine whether an individual is disabled.
one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “engaged in
substantial gainful activity during the following periods:
4th quarter of 2013 through May 28, 2014” but that
“there has been a continuous 12-month period during
which the claimant did not engage in substantial gainful
two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the following
severe impairments: Sjogren's syndrome; rheumatic
arthritis (RA); osteoarthritis of the shoulders; status-post
cerebral vascular accident. . . .” The ALJ found
plaintiff's anemia, bilateral hearing loss, bilateral
carpal tunnel, degenerative joint disease of the
patellofemoral compartment, anxiety, adjustment disorder, and
panic disorder non-severe.
three, the ALJ found that plaintiff “does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments. . . .” The ALJ considered Listings 1.02 (major
dysfunction of a joint, due to any cause), 14.09
(inflammatory arthritis), 14.10 (Sjögren's
syndrome), and 11.04 (vascular insult to the
steps three and four, the ALJ must, as an intermediate step,
assess the claimant's RFC.” Bray v. Comm'r
of Social Security Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222-23 (9th
Cir. 2009). The ALJ found that plaintiff had
the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she
needs a sit/stand option allowing to alternate sitting or
standing positions at one hour intervals throughout the day.
Further, she can frequently climb ramps or stairs, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl, but can never climb ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds. There should be no exposure to unprotected
gave great weight to most of Dr. Lebeau's opinion but
only gave little weight to his opinion that plaintiff would
need additional breaks during the day because of her
Sjogren's. The ALJ gave great weight to most of Dr.
Brown's opinion but little weight to his opinion that
plaintiff could occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds
and should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and
hazards. The ALJ gave little weight to Dr.
Hambleton's opinions. The ALJ also gave little
weight to Dr. Anderson's opinions. The ALJ gave
no weight to Dr. Farr's opinion. The ALJ also gave no
weight to Dr. Rosales' opinion. The ALJ gave no weight to
Kay Smith's opinion. The ALJ also gave no weight to Larina
four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was “capable of
performing past relevant work as an accounting clerk, an
accounting technician, a payroll accountant, an accounting
specialist, an accounting manager, and an accounting
the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had “not been under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from
October 15, 2012, through the date of this decision. . .
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court has the “power to
enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a
judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of
the Commissioner. . . .” The court “properly
affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits if
it is supported by substantial evidence and based on the
application of correct legal standards.” Sandgathe
v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997).
“Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere
scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.
1995)). “‘To determine whether substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's decision, [the court]
review[s] the administrative record as a whole, weighing both
the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the
ALJ's conclusion.'” Id. (quoting
Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039). If the evidence is
susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, the
court must uphold the Commissioner's decision.
Id. But, the Commissioner's decision cannot be
affirmed “‘simply by isolating a specific quantum
of supporting evidence.'” Holohan v.
Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting
Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir.
first argues that the ALJ erred because he failed to account
for the fact that she would miss more than two days of work
each month because of her dental visits. Plaintiff testified
that she sees the dental hygienist once a week for about an
hour and the dentist 3-4 times per month for anywhere between
30 minutes and 2 hours. Plaintiff argues that her dental
appointments, which are necessary treatment for her
Sjogren's, would cause her to miss more than two days of
work per month. The vocational expert testified that two or
more absences per month would preclude competitive
dental appointments would not necessarily cause her to miss
more than two days of work per month. There is no evidence in
the record that plaintiff's dental provider was only
available for appointments during the workday. In her reply
brief, plaintiff contends that her dental visits are in
Anchorage (she lives in Juneau), but the record does not bear
this out. Plaintiff testified that she has been making 2-3
trips to Anchorage per month since 2014 for her various
medical issues, not just to see the dentist. And, while
the record does show that plaintiff makes relatively frequent
trips to Anchorage for medical appointments, which might
preclude her from maintaining full-time employment, it does
not appear that she was going to Anchorage 2-3 times per
month. That said, even if she were only going once a month,
it is possible that such a trip along with her other medical
appointments would preclude full-time employment.
ALJ always has a ‘special duty to fully and fairly
develop the record and to assure that the claimant's
interests are considered.'” Garcia v.
Comm'r of Social Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 930 (9th Cir.
2014) (quoting Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1183
(9th Cir. 2003)). “Ambiguous evidence, or the ALJ's
own finding that the record is inadequate to allow for proper
evaluation of the evidence, triggers the ALJ's duty to
‘conduct an appropriate inquiry.'”
Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir.
2001) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d at 1273,
1288 (9th Cir. 1996)). “The ALJ may discharge this duty
in several ways, including: subpoenaing the claimant's
physicians, submitting questions to the claimant's
physicians, continuing the hearing, or keeping the record
open after the hearing to allow supplementation of the
evidence on the issue of how much work plaintiff would miss
each month due to necessary medical and dentist appointments
is ambiguous. The ALJ should have developed the record as to
this issue. The failure to do so was error.
next argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting a portion of Dr.
Lebeau's opinion. Dr. Lebeau opined that plaintiff could
lift/carry 10 pounds continuously; lift/carry up 20 pounds
frequently; could sit for 7 hours a day, up to 2 hours at a
time; could stand for 3 hours a day, up to one hour at a
time; could walk for 30 minutes; had no limits in terms of
using her hands and feet; could climb stairs and ramps
frequently; could never climb scaffolds and ladders; could
balance continuously; could stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl
frequently; could not be around unprotected heights; and had
no limitations as to moving mechanical parts, moving
machinery, dust, odors, fumes, and extreme cold and
heat. Dr. Lebeau also testified that plaintiff
would need additional breaks every day to deal with the
symptoms of her Sjogren's, but he did not give a number
of additional breaks that would be required. Dr. Lebeau
stated “that what [plaintiff's] describing”
in terms of her Sjogren's syndrome “is classic.
There's nothing [to] challenge credibility. . . .
It's a . . . nasty disease and yet it doesn't kill
you; . . . you have to try to . . . live with
this[.]” He also testified that “this is a
lady who's going to have to be taking wetting agents for
her . . . tongue, mouth, and for her eyes frequently. So
she's going to be, like, trying to work and . . . I'm
sure that she is using these things probably at least every
gave great weight to most of Dr. Lebeau's opinion but
gave little weight to the portion of his opinion relating to
plaintiff needing additional breaks. Plaintiff argues that the
ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Lebeau's opinion that she
would need additional breaks. The ALJ rejected this portion
of Dr. Lebeau's opinion because it was inconsistent with
plaintiff's daily activities and because Dr. Lebeau
“did not opine any specific number of breaks, but
rather indicated generally that Sjogren's requires
maintenance during the day.”“As elements of [Dr.
Lebeau's] opinion conflict with opinions of other medical
experts, the ALJ was only required to give a specific and
legitimate reason for rejecting h[is] medical opinion.”
Norris v. Colvin, 160 F.Supp.3d 1251, 1270 (E.D.
Wash. 2016) (internal quotations omitted).
argues that the first reason given by the ALJ was a
legitimate reason. The ALJ stated that plaintiff remained
“quite active” and pointed to evidence that she
drove disabled friends and family around; that she was caring
for 14 of her grandchildren in her home; that less than one
year after her alleged onset date she was applying for full
time jobs and actually began working full-time in October
2013; that she assisted a friend with medical travel
including pushing a wheelchair and carrying luggage; and that
as late as 2016, she was spending 13-hour days caring for 3
of her ...