United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL MCSHANE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
September 25, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI,
alleging disability as of August 15, 2009. Tr.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.