United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
MAX N. CRANLEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, 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 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 affirmed.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 7, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of May 1, 1996, due to Tourette's syndrome, anxiety, and depression. See Administrative Record ("AR") 17, 159-65. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 106-09, 116-19. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on March 20, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did vocational expert Susan Stewart. See AR 32-70.
On March 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 14-31. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on December 20, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On February 25, 2014, 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 April 29, 2014. See Dkt. #10. 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, further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in determining plaintiff's severe impairments at step two; (2) in failing to find plaintiff met listing 12.04 and 12.06; (3) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; and (4) in finding plaintiff to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 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. § 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 *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 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.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to find depression to be a severe impairment at step two. Dkt. #12, p. 5-6. This Court disagrees. "[T]he existence of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment must be established by medical evidence." Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1005 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting SSR 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187 *1). Further, "[a] symptom' is not a medically determinable physical or mental impairment' and no symptom by itself can establish the existence of such an impairment." SSR 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187 *1. Plaintiff pointed to no diagnosis or objective evidence of a depressive disorder. Plaintiff merely cited to reports of plaintiff's symptoms in the record, which he argues are consistent with depressive disorder. See Dkt. #12, pp. 5-6. However, these symptoms alone are insufficient to show a medically determinable impairment. See SSR 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187 *1. Plaintiff failed to show the ALJ erred in failing to find depressive disorder severe at step two.
Regardless, plaintiff has the burden of establishing the asserted error resulted in actual harm. See Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012) ("The burden is on the party claiming error to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected his "substantial rights, " which is to say, not merely his procedural rights.") (citing Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 407-09 (2009)). The ALJ found plaintiff to have other severe mental impairments at step two and found plaintiff to have multiple nonexertional limitations in the residual functional capacity finding. The plaintiff failed to show ...