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 plaintiff's 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 September 22, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of September 1, 1994. See ECF #11, Administrative Record ("AR") 17. That application was denied upon initial administrative review on January 27, 2011, and on reconsideration on August 26, 2011. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on August 3, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 36-72.
In a decision dated September 14, 2012, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 17-31. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on January 14, 2014, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On March 4, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See ECF #3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on May 5, 2014. See ECF #11. 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, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, § 12.04 and § 12.06; (2) in assessing her residual functional capacity; and (3) in ignoring vocational expert testimony that she would be unable to obtain or maintain substantial gainful activity. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred as alleged, and thus in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.
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 Three 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 three of that process, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant's impairments to see if they meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F. R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). See Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R § 416.920(d). If any of the claimant's impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of a listed impairment, he or she is deemed disabled. Id . The burden of proof is on the claimant to establish a listed impairment is met or medically equaled. See Tacket , 180 F.3d at 1098. "A generalized assertion of functional problems, " however, "is not enough to establish disability at step three." Id. at 1100 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526).
A mental or physical impairment "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. § 416.908. It must be established by medical evidence "consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings." Id .; see also Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 *2 (determination that is conducted at step three must be made on basis of medical factors alone). An impairment meets a listed impairment "only when it manifests the specific findings described in the set of medical criteria for that listed impairment." SSR 83-19, 1983 WL 31248 *2.
An impairment, or combination of impairments, equals a listed impairment "only if the medical findings (defined as a set of symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings) are at least equivalent in severity to the set of medical findings for the listed impairment." Id .; see also Sullivan v. Zebley , 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990) ("For a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.") (emphasis in original). However, "symptoms alone" will not justify a finding of equivalence. Id . The ALJ also "is not required to discuss the combined effects of a claimant's impairments or compare them to any listing in an equivalency determination, unless the claimant presents evidence in an effort to establish equivalence." Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 683 (9th Cir. 2005).
The ALJ need not "state why a claimant failed to satisfy every different section of the listing of impairments." Gonzalez v. Sullivan , 914 F.2d 1197, 1201 (9th Cir. 1990) (finding ALJ did not err in failing to state what evidence supported conclusion that, or discuss why, claimant's impairments did not meet or exceed Listings). This is particularly true where, as noted above, the claimant has failed to set forth any reasons as to why the Listing criteria have been met or equaled. Lewis v. Apfel , 236 F.3d 503, 514 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding ALJ's failure to discuss combined effect of claimant's ...