United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the Court hereby finds that for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On November 16, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of May 31, 2002. See ECF #9, Administrative Record ("AR") 18, 141. That application was denied upon initial administrative review on April 2, 2010, and on reconsideration on June 15, 2010. See AR 18. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on July 13, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 32-71.
In a decision dated August 25, 2011, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 18-27. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on February 28, 2013, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On April 19, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See ECF #1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on July 12, 2013. See ECF #9. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.
Plaintiff argues defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding his depressive and learning disorders to be non-severe impairments; (2) in evaluating the opinions of Jan Johnson, Ph.D., and Sophie Hoptowit, M.D.; and (3) in discounting plaintiff's credibility. For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in finding plaintiff's depressive and learning disorders to be non-severe impairments and in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Johnson, and thus in determining plaintiff to be not disabled. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, while the Court finds defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed on this basis, this matter instead should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
The determination of the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the "proper legal standards" have been applied by the Commissioner, and the "substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports" that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler , 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan , 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) ("A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.") (citing Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted); see also Batson , 359 F.3d at 1193 ("[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record."). "The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine" whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required." Sorenson v. Weinberger , 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). "If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, " the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler , 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.") (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch , 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).
I. The ALJ's Step Two Determination
Defendant employs a five-step "sequential evaluation process" to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any particular step thereof, the disability determination is made at that step, and the sequential evaluation process ends. See id. At step two of the evaluation process, the ALJ must determine if an impairment is "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. An impairment is "not severe" if it does not "significantly limit" a claimant's mental or physical abilities to do basic work activities. 20 § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (c); see also Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 *1. Basic work activities are those "abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b); SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856 *3.
An impairment 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." SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856 *3; see also Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996); Yuckert v. Bowen , 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir.1988). Plaintiff has the burden of proving that his "impairments or their symptoms affect [his] ability to perform basic work activities." Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1159-60 (9th Cir. 2001); Tidwell v. Apfel , 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1998). The step two inquiry described above, however, is a de minimis screening device used to dispose of groundless claims. See Smolen , 80 F.3d at 1290.
The ALJ in this case found plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, drug abuse and a history of alcohol abuse. See AR 21. The ALJ further found in relevant part at step two:
The claimant has also been treated or evaluated for other symptoms and complaints, which appear periodically throughout the record. These include... a mood disorder, a mild cognitive disorder, and a learning disorder.... Jan Johnson, Ph.D. completed a [state agency] psychological report, and diagnosed the claimant with a depressive disorder, NOS; a learning disorder, NOS; and, a rule-out cognitive disorder, perhaps mild retardation to borderline intellectual functioning (Ex. 12F, p. 2). However, [the] claimant did not allege any psychological impairments. These other conditions, considered singly or together, have caused only transient and mild symptoms and limitations, are well controlled with ...