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Norman v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 1, 2019

CHRISTINE ANN NORMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Secretary, Defendant.

          ORDER

          H. Russel Holland United States District Judge

         This is 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 Christine Ann Norman has timely filed her opening brief, [1] to which defendant, Andrew Saul, [2] has timely responded. Oral argument was not requested and is not deemed necessary.

         Procedural Background

         On November 30, 2015, plaintiff filed applications for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging that she became disabled on October 5, 2015. Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to paranoid schizophrenia and schizophrenic affective disorder. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, and plaintiff requested a hearing. After an administrative hearing on March 9, 2018, an administrative law judge (ALJ) denied plaintiff's application. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision. On March 11, 2019, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's March 29, 2018 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On April 8, 2019, plaintiff commenced this action in which she asks the court to review the Commissioner's final decision.

         General Background

         Plaintiff was born on June 26, 1968. Plaintiff was 47 years old on her alleged onset date. Plaintiff did not graduate from high school but did obtain a high school equivalency diploma. Plaintiff's past relevant work was as a personal care attendant, a housekeeper, and a laundry tech.

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ first determined that plaintiff met “the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020.”[3]

         The ALJ then applied the five-step sequential analysis used to determine whether an individual is disabled.[4]

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 5, 2015, the alleged onset date. . . .”[5]

         At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “the following medically determinable impairments: hypothyroidism, and schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder. . . .”[6] But, the ALJ found that plaintiff did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. . . .”[7] The ALJ found that plaintiff had “an exacerbation of her symptoms during 2017” but that she had “ongoing improvement of her symptoms when she continued to take her medications.”[8]

         The ALJ found plaintiff's statements regarding her symptoms less than credible.[9]

         The ALJ gave great weight[10] to Dr. Lebeau's opinion.[11] The ALJ gave great weight[12] to Dr. Valette's opinion.[13] The ALJ gave little weight[14] to the opinion of ANP James Overfelt.[15] The ALJ also gave little weight[16] to the opinion of Debra Arthur-Wilkinson.[17]

         The ALJ gave some weight[18] to Dr. Burke's opinion.[19]

         The ALJ considered the “paragraph B” criteria.[20] The ALJ found that plaintiff had no limitations as to understanding, remembering, or applying information; no limitations as to interacting with others; no limitations as to concentrating, persisting or maintaining pace; and mild limitations as to adapting or managing oneself.[21]

         “In sum, ” the ALJ found that plaintiff's “physical and mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. Thus, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.”[22] The ALJ concluded that plaintiff had “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 5, 2015 through the date of this decision. . . .”[23]

         Standard of Review

         Pursuant 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. 1999)).

         Discussion The primary issue here is whether the ALJ's step two finding was supported by substantial evidence. But first, the court must decide what evidence it can consider because plaintiff submitted new evidence to the Appeals Council that was not before the ALJ. “[W]hen the Appeals Council considers new evidence in deciding whether to review a decision of the ALJ, that evidence becomes part of the administrative record, which the district court must consider when reviewing the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence.” Decker v. Berryhill, 856 F.3d 659, 664 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). But, if the ...


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