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Stephanie O. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 28, 2019

STEPHANIE O., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Stephanie O. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         On September 25, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of August 15, 2009. Tr. 20.[2] Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing after her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. On September 15, 2016, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Michaelsen. Tr. 39-63. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged disability onset date to April 1, 2012. Tr. 47-48. In a written decision dated December 2, 2016, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from April 1, 2012, through the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 17-32. Because the ALJ's decision is based on the proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, 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); Batson v. Comm'r of 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, I 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.” 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 utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If the claimant satisfies her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. Id. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. Id. 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 v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

         Born in 1971, Plaintiff was 40 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 45 years old on the date of her hearing. Tr. 30. She has a high school education. Tr. 30. Plaintiff previously worked as a telephone information clerk and data entry clerk. Id. She alleged disability due to anxiety, major depression, headaches, lumbago/sciatica with radiculopathy, bilateral knee joint pain and swelling, Baker's cysts, livedo reticularis, spider veins, rosacea, and syncope with tachycardia. Tr. 268.

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative disc disease, mild arthritis, borderline obesity, a schizoaffective disorder, an anxiety disorder, and a personality disorder. Tr. 23. The ALJ resolved that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work, except she was limited to no more than frequent balancing and occasional crawling, crouching, kneeling, or climbing. Tr. 25. The ALJ further found Plaintiff would require regular, periodic reminders from her supervisor in order to stay on task, and could perform simple, repetitive, and routine tasks requiring no more than brief, superficial contact with the general public. Id. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to return to her past relevant work; however, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform other jobs in the national economy, such as table worker, hand mounter, and document specialist. Tr. 30-31. Therefore, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 31-32.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to find Baker's cysts a severe impairment at step two; (2) rejecting multiple medical opinions; and (3) failing to identify a significant number of jobs in the economy that Plaintiff could perform. I address each argument in turn.

         I. Step Two

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by failing to find Baker's cysts a severe impairment at step two of the sequential analysis. The step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device used to dispose of groundless claims. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 147, 153-54 (1987). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that she has a severe impairment at step two by providing medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. 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) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996)). However, if an ALJ fails to properly identify a severe impairment at step two, but nonetheless considers the erroneously omitted impairment at subsequent steps of the sequential evaluation process, the step two error is harmless. Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Here, the ALJ's failure to find Plaintiff's Baker's cysts a severe impairment at step two was harmless. The ALJ found that notwithstanding a February 2014 MRI demonstrating Plaintiff had cysts in both of her knees, subsequent examination with Dr. Diaz in July 2015 indicated Plaintiff had joint line tenderness in her knees, but no Baker's cysts were felt by the doctor. Tr. 26, 316, 571. Dr Diaz diagnosed “[a]thralgia of both knees” and referred Plaintiff to an orthopedic specialist. Tr. 571. Notably, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to sedentary work, in part, because of her “knee arthritis.” Tr. 26. Thus, even assuming the ALJ erred at step two by failing to expressly find Baker's cysts, as opposed to knee arthritis, a severe impairment, the ALJ's subsequent consideration of Plaintiff's knee limitations rendered that error harmless. See Lewis, 498 F.3d at 911.

         II. Medical ...

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