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Arstill v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 14, 2019

PATRICIA A.[1], f/k/a PATRICIA M., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL W. MOSMAN, Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Patricia A. challenges the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. I have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision. For the reasons stated below I AFFIRM the ALJ's decision.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on January 26, 2015, and for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on June 23, 2017, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2007. Tr. 158-59, 185-86. Plaintiffs claim was initially denied on June 2, 2015, and upon reconsideration on December 4, 2015. Tr. 89-94, 96-98, On June 26, 2017, Plaintiff attended a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Rudolph Murgo. Tr. 41. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2015. Tr. 60. On October 4, 2017, Judge Murgo issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 34-35. Plaintiff appealed that decision on November 15, 2017, and that appeal was denied by the Appeals Council on August 28, 2018. Tr. 1-3, 154-55. Plaintiff now comes before this Court seeking to overturn the ALJ's decision.

         FACTS

         Plaintiff was born in 1958 and was 56 years old at the time she alleges her disability began on January 1, 2015. She has past work experience as a cashier, a caregiver, a dental assistant, and as a customer service representative. Tr. 57. Plaintiff has suffered from arthritis and Hepatitis C, among other ailments. See Tr. 199.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made various findings along the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (establishing the five-step evaluative process for SSI claims). Tr. 24-34.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity between April 1, 2015, and June 30, 2015 (the second quarter of 2015), but has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since. Tr. 24. He noted that claimant's reported earnings fell from $3, 797 in the second quarter of 2015, to $1, 940 in the third quarter of 2015, and then to $33 in the fourth quarter of 2015. Id At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: inflammatory arthritis; chronic liver disease; and spine disorders. Tr. 24, The ALJ found that Plaintiffs diagnoses of depression and anxiety were non-severe. Tr. 25.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 26.

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ described Plaintiffs Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") as follows:

Claimant [can] . . . perform light work . . . except: She can lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally, and lift/carry 10 pounds frequently. She can stand/walk for six hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds. She is limited to frequent bilateral handling and fingering. She should avoid all exposure to hazards.

Tr. 30.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a cashier, dental assistant, and customer service representative. Tr. 34.

         Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work, he did not conduct a step five analysis, and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. Tr. 34.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I review the ALJ's decision to ensure the ALJ applied proper legal standards and that the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bray v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (explaining that the ALJ's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and not based on legal error). '"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.55 Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec, Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). A judge must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is a rational interpretation of the evidence, even if there are other possible rational interpretations. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff makes three main arguments for why the ALJ erred in reaching his finding that Plaintiff was not disabled: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of reviewing doctors K. McAuliffe, M.D., and Lauhna Ude, Ph.D.; (2) the ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiffs recent past work; and (3) the ALJ improperly assessed Plaintiffs depression and anxiety at Step Two and thus failed to incorporate relevant limitations into her RFC. PL's Opening Br. [ECF 12] at 5. Because of these purported errors, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for the immediate payment of benefits. Id. at 17.

         Plaintiffs first two arguments point to errors in the ALJ's RFC assessment. Her third argument attacks the ALJ's decision at step two of the evaluative process (which purportedly also led to error in the RFC assessment). I will first address Plaintiffs arguments related to step two, before turning to her arguments concerning the RFC assessment. In short, I find that all three of Plaintiff s main arguments fail and that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         I. The ALJ's Decision at Step Two

         At step two of the evaluative process, the ALJ considered Plaintiffs impairments related to her depression and anxiety and concluded that these impairments were "non-severe." Tr. 25. In summarizing his conclusions, the ALJ stated that:

[T]he treatment records state that [Plaintiffs] mental symptoms from [depression and anxiety] were likely secondary to her interferon treatment for her hepatitis C. Mental status examinations of the [Plaintiff] also noted she was clear and intact. Finally, there is no evidence these impairments, singly or in combination, cause any vocational limitations.

Tr. 25 (citations omitted).

         The ALJ then laid out a detailed analysis of the "four broad areas of mental functioning/5 or the "paragraph B" criteria, which supported the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiffs depression and anxiety did not result in severe impairments. For example, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs ability to "interact[] with ...


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