United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
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 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 affirmed.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On December 30, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of May 8, 1997, due to depression, polysubstance abuse, degenerative disc disease, AC impingement, carpel tunnel syndrome, and nerve damage in left elbow. See Administrative Record ("AR") 33, 216-20, 283. Her claim was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 126-29, 135-37. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on October 25, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 53-117.
On April 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 30-52. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on July 3, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-7; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On August 12, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See Dkt. #3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on November 25, 2013. See Dkt. #15, 16. 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, remanded for further proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in determining plaintiff's severe impairments; (2) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (3) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; (4) in failing to consider additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council. 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.
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. 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. § 404.1520; 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 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 *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 *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 her "impairments or their symptoms affect her [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.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to find plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine or anxiety disorder to be severe impairments. Dkt. #18, p. 5-7. Plaintiff bases this argument solely on medical evidence submitted to the Appeals Council. Id. However, the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence, even considering the additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council post hearing.
In regards to plaintiff's cervical spine degenerative disc disease, plaintiff points to medical records from Ryan J. Halpin, M.D. dated March 5, 2012 and a cervical spine MRI performed on February 29, 2012. Dkt. #18, p. 5-6. After reviewing the MRI of plaintiff's cervical spine, Dr. Halpin continued to recommend only physical therapy, which had already been recommended based on plaintiff's complaints of low back pain. AR 1492-95. Further, Dr. Halpin noted that he would continue to observe her neck condition and did "not feel there is any need to rush in for any of her degerative changes seen in her cervical spine." AR 1492. Plaintiff points to no other evidence demonstrating plaintiff's cervical spine impairment and this Court was only able to find one subjective complaint of neck pain throughout the over 1200 pages of medical records. See AR ...