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Cindy F. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 13, 2019

CINDY F., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Merrill Schneider, Schneider, Kerr, & Robichaux, P.O. Box 14490, Portland, OR 97293. Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney's Office, 1000 S.W. Third Avenue, Suite 600, Portland, OR 97204; Jordan D. Goddard, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social Security Administration, 701 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2900 M/S 221A, Seattle, WA 98104. Of Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND

          MICHAEL H. SIMON, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Cindy F. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on March 19, 2014, alleging she became disabled on August 1, 2013. AR 61. Born in 1969, Plaintiff was 43 years old at the alleged disability onset date and 46 years old at the time of her hearing. AR 72, 127. She completed high school and attended some college courses, but she did not obtain a college degree. AR 19. Plaintiff had past relevant work experience as a retail sales associate and assistant manager. AR 31-32. She alleged disability due fibromyalgia, migraines, and “menstrual issues.” AR 156.

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 80-90, 97-98. On April 28, 2016, a hearing was held before ALJ S. Andrew Grace, at which Plaintiff, her counsel, and Paul Morrison, a vocational expert (“VE”), were present. AR 15-36. In a decision dated August 11, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 61-73. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 20, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of that decision. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         B. The Sequential Analysis

         A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe” under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing “work which exists in the national economy”). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ performed the sequential analysis noted above. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. AR 63. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, migraines, obesity, anemia, diabetes mellitus, anxiety, and depression. Id. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff's hypertension, incontinence, obstructive sleep apnea, hidradenitis, hand tremors, and temporomandibular joint disorder (“TMJ”) were non-severe. AR 63-64. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the specific impairments listed in the regulations. AR 64-66.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff's RFC and found that she could perform sedentary work, with the following limitations:

She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work. She is limited to low-stress work, which is defined as work requiring few decisions and few changes.

AR 66. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. AR 71-72.

         At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 72. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform such representative occupations as charge account clerk, addresser, and telephone quotation clerk. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from August 1, 2013, through the date of the decision, August 11, 2016. AR 73.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (A) failing to find several of Plaintiff's diagnoses severe impairments at step two; (B) finding Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony less than entirely credible; (C) discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating doctor Linda Hungerford, MD, and mental health counselor Catherine Caruso, MSW, CSWA; (D) improperly evaluating the lay witness testimony of Plaintiff's mother, Leslie M.; and (E) finding that Plaintiff was capable of performing other work in the national economy at step five.[2] Each is discussed in turn.

         A. Step Two

         At step two, the claimant bears the burden of establishing that she has a severe impairment by providing medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. An impairment or combination of impairments is “not severe only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted). The ALJ is required to consider the combined effect of all the claimant's impairments on her ability to function. Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1012 (9th Cir. 2003). Thus, if the ALJ determines that a claimant has any severe impairment at step two, the sequential analysis proceeds and the ALJ must continue to consider all of the claimant's limitations, severe or not. Social Security Rule (“SSR”) 96-8p, available at 1996 WL 374184; Buck v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1049 (9th Cir. 2017). When an ALJ fails to identify a severe impairment at step two, but nonetheless considers at subsequent steps all of the claimant's impairments, including the erroneously omitted severe impairment, the error at step two is harmless. See Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly failed to find the following diagnoses were severe impairments: diabetic neuropathy, sleep apnea, hypertension, TMJ, hidradenitis, respiratory issues, incontinence, and hand tremors. With the exception of Plaintiff's respiratory issues and diabetic neuropathy, the ALJ expressly found those impairments were not severe at step two because they caused no more than a minimal effect on Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities. AR 63-64. Plaintiff's conclusory assertions to the contrary are unpersuasive.

         Beyond simply pointing to a host of diagnoses scattered throughout the medical record, Plaintiff does not advance a single functional limitation that the ALJ failed to consider in the sequential analysis.[3] A diagnosis alone does not establish the severity of an impairment. See Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1549-50 (9th Cir. 1985). Moreover, the ALJ considered all of Plaintiff's impairments at the subsequent steps of the sequential analysis and in his summary of the medical evidence. AR 64-70. Thus, even assuming the ALJ erred at step two, that error would have been harmless. Lewis, ...


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