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Gorder v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

April 15, 2014

KAREN GORDER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). 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 is AFFIRMED.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 19, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 22, 2005, due to back injury; arthritis; sarcoidosis; injury to neck, lung and rib; hearing loss; stress and anxiety; depression; insomnia; and pain. See Administrative Record ("AR") 155-56, 185. Plaintiff's date last insured ("DLI") is December 31, 2004. See AR 181. Plaintiff's claim was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 93-97. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on February 22, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). See AR 37-88.

On March 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. See AR 21-30. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on May 15, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-7; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On June 7, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See ECF # 1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on August 14, 2013. See ECF ## 8-9. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for judicial review and a decision by the Court.

Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded to defendant for payment of benefits, or in the alternative additional proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding plaintiff's arthritis to be not severe at step two; (2) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (3) in finding her to be capable of performing past relevant work. She also contends that the Appeals Council erred in denying review despite newly submitted evidence, and that the case should be remanded to allow the ALJ to consider that evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds that defendant's decision should be affirmed.

DISCUSSION

The determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (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. Comm'r of Social Sec. 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. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 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)).[1]

I. The ALJ's Step-Two Determination

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that her arthritis was not a severe impairment at step two. Plaintiff points to a 2003 diagnosis (AR 265) from treating physician Amira Morcos, M.D., as evidence that her arthritis was severe, and argues that the ALJ erred in failing to analyze this evidence.

A. Legal Standards

Defendant employs a five-step "sequential evaluation process" to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 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. §§ 404.1520, 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 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & (c), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) & (c); see also Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181, at *1. Basic work activities are those "abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b); SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *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, at *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 her "impairments or their symptoms affect her 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 ...


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