United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division
OPINION AND ORDER
PATRICIA SULLIVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
filed an application for DIB on November 7, 2013, alleging an
amended disability onset date of November 7, 2013. Tr. 19,
81-82. 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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 ...