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Phillip N. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

December 9, 2019

PHILLIP N.,[1] Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Phillip N. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 8). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this case is DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on November 7, 2013, alleging an amended disability onset date of November 7, 2013. Tr. 19, 81-82.[2] His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 84, 99. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on May 8, 2017. Tr 39-83, 127. On June 6, 2017, an ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 19-33. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 7, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.


         Born in 1963, plaintiff was 50 years old on his amended alleged onset date and 53 years old on the date of his hearing. Tr. 46, 84. He has an associate degree in automotive technology and has past relevant work as an automobile service manager, vocational instructor, maintenance dispatcher, automobile body repairer, and automobile mechanic. Tr. 32, 72-76, 206. He alleged disability based upon sacroiliac joint disfunction; back disc problems at ¶ 5-S1 and L4-L5; pain in his right knee; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); and depression. Tr. 84, 206-08.


         The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”). “[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) (quotation omitted).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At the fourth step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform “past relevant work.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.


         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of his alleged onset date through his date of last insured. Tr. 21. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; severe degenerative joint disease in his right knee; fibromyalgia; and lupus. Tr. 21.

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 25. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the following limitations: he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can frequently balance, occasionally stoop, and never kneel, crouch, or crawl; and he should avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. Tr. 25-26. Because the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a maintenance dispatcher, he did not proceed to the fifth step of the sequential analysis. Tr. 32. The ALJ thus found plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 33.


         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to find plaintiff's alleged mental impairments severe at step two; (2) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting his subjective symptom testimony; (3) failing to provide germane reasons for discounting the lay witness statements of plaintiff's wife and mother; (4) erroneously evaluating the medical opinion evidence; and (5) as a result of these purported errors, failing to include all of his limitations in the hypothetical presented to the vocational expert (“VE”). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         I. Step Two

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in finding his mental impairments, specifically, his generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and depression non-severe at step two. At step two, a claimant must make a threshold showing that (1) he has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments and (2) the impairment or combination of impairments is severe. See Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         To evaluate the severity of a mental impairment at steps two and three, the ALJ must follow a special psychiatric review technique described at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a. That technique requires the ALJ to rate the degree of a claimant's limitations in four broad functional areas: the ability to (1) understand, remember, or apply information, (2) interact with others, (3) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace, and (4) adapt or manage oneself. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c). The regulations further provide that where an ALJ rates a claimant's limitations as “none” or “mild, ” the Agency “will generally conclude that [a claimant's] impairment(s) [are] not severe, unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a minimal limitation in [the claimant's] ability to do basic work activities.” Id. at § 404.1520a(d)(1).

         The ALJ found that, although plaintiff's generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, and PTSD were medically determinable, they “did not cause more than [a] minimal limitation in [plaintiff's] ability to perform basic mental work activities and were therefore nonsevere.” Tr. 22. The ALJ then discussed the following medical evidence before rating the severity of plaintiff's impairments in the four functional areas. Id. at 22-24.

         The ALJ noted that “[t]he evidence in the record [was] not consistent with [plaintiff's] allegations of severe mental symptoms and limitations.” Tr. 22. The ALJ discussed neuropsychological testing from December 2012 that “showed normal findings in [plaintiff's] working memory, attention span, visual tracking and sequencing, ability to acquire and recall verbally presented information.” Tr. 22-23 (citing Tr. 305). The examiner documented that plaintiff had “adequate attention, memory, visuospatial function, and working memory.” Tr. 306.

         The ALJ next discussed medical records from early 2013 that indicated plaintiff continued to work at his auto body shop. Tr. 23 (citing Tr. 661, 668). Those records further reflected that despite finding plaintiff's symptoms clinically significant, “[m]uch of the time he [was] able to cope and function, ” though at other times he was “ineffective at or unable to work and carry on in responsibilities.” Tr. 668. The ALJ also considered medical records from plaintiff's treating provider, Edward Groenhout, M.D., in which the doctor wrote that, notwithstanding “considerable stressors in his life, ” plaintiff was “doing about as well as anyone would under the circumstances, ” and was “dealing pretty well with major life stressors[.]” Tr. 23 (citing Tr. 406).

         The ALJ further noted that many of plaintiff's “mental impairments [arose] from personal stressors that fluctuated with increased stressors but generally were well controlled with medication.” Tr. 23. A review of Dr. Groenhout's treatment records confirms that plaintiff's mental impairments were largely controlled with medication. See, e.g., Tr. 408 (reporting clonazepam “works well”); Tr. 411 (reporting anxiety as “stable” with clonazepam and that medication was “helping” depression); Tr. 418 (reporting plaintiff was “doing well from an anxiety standpoint” and “stable on medications”); Tr. 422 (noting plaintiff was “progressing toward good mental health” and that plaintiff was to continue “with counseling and . . . medication as prescribed”); Tr. 423 (reporting “not as anxious and [plaintiff] is able to do more and worry less” after adjusting ...

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