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Williams v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 5, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Christine Williams brings this action for judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits. Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on June 5, 2009. After a hearing on February 21, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied plaintiff's claim finding plaintiff was not disabled. This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Because the Commissioner did not err in either weighing the medical opinions, or concluding plaintiff's depression and anxiety were not severe impairments, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010); Batson v. Comm'r for Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "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.'" Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, we review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment' for that of the Commissioner, " and therefore must affirm. Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1996)).


The Social Security Administration follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920 (2012). Plaintiff carries the initial burden of proof for the first four steps. If plaintiff satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2012). At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the plaintiff is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.

At Step One, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date. TR 11.[1] At Step Two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had two severe impairments: right temporal headache syndrome and sinusitis, and two non-severe impairments: depression and anxiety. TR 11-12. At Step Three, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (2014). At Step Four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform work at all exertion levels with the following nonexertional limitations: "she is limited to tasks that involve frequent, but not constant, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. Such tasks may involve no more than occasional balancing or climbing of ramps/stairs/ladders/ropes/scaffolds. She must also avoid more than moderate exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights or moving machinery." TR 13. At Step Five, the ALJ relied on a vocational expert's testimony indicating that a person with the same RFC, work experience, education, and age as the plaintiff could perform work as a laundry worker, a stock clerk, or a general helper. TR 17. Thus, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. TR 17.

Plaintiff appeals to this court, assigning error to the ALJ for the following reasons:

1) Failing to give controlling weight to the treating physician (Dr. Miller) opinion.

2) Finding that plaintiff's impairments of depression and anxiety and a combination of these impairments constitute a de minimis, groundless claim at Step Two of the Sequential Evaluation.

3) Finding "non-disability" as a result of failing to credit VE testimony based on Dr. Miller's RFC that must be given controlling weight.

I. The ALJ appropriately determined that the treating physician's February 2010 opinion should not be given controlling weight.

The ALJ did not give controlling weight to the February 2010 opinion of plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Kristen Miller. TR 15. The ALJ can only disregard a treating physician's opinion by providing specific, legitimate reasons based on substantial evidence in the record. Matney on Behalf of Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1995). In this case, the ALJ provided two reasons for discounting Dr. Miller's opinion. First, the ALJ found that Dr. Miller's own ...

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