United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
LUDIE C. JACKSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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 her applications for disability insurance and 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 this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On July 15, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, and on October 26, 2010, she filed another one for disability insurance benefits, alleging in both applications she became disabled beginning June 28, 2008. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record ("AR") 22. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review on March 3, 2011, and on reconsideration on April 12, 2011. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on March 30, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 40-91.
In a decision dated August 14, 2012, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 22-34. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on November 22, 2013, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. The administrative record was filed with the Court on May 16, 2014. See Dkt. 10. 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 in failing to properly: (1) identify all of plaintiff's severe impairments; (2) evaluate the medical evidence in the record; (3) assess plaintiff's credibility; (4) evaluate the lay witness evidence in the record; (5) assess plaintiff's residual functional capacity; and (6) determine whether plaintiff is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Plaintiff also argues additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council supports remand for further administrative proceedings. For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in failing to properly identify all of plaintiff's severe impairments and in evaluating the opinions of Julie Oyemaja, Psy.D., Charaine E. Herald, Ph.D., and Kelly Whetsone, ARNP - and thus in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity and in finding her to be capable of performing other jobs - and therefore in determining her to be not disabled. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, the Court finds that while defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed on this basis, this matter 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. § 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 *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 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 migraine headaches and depression. See AR 24. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not finding her borderline intellectual functioning and learning disorders to be severe impairments as well. The undersigned agrees. As discussed further below, the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion of Dr. Oyemaja, who assessed plaintiff with significant mental functional limitations based at least in part on the above two diagnoses. See AR 260. As such, it appears those impairments have had more than a de minimis impact on plaintiff's ability to perform work-related activities. Nor can the ALJ's error be said to be harmless,  given that although as also discussed further below the ALJ did not end her analysis at step two, she ...