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 the defendant Commissioner's partial denial of her application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). 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, the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits prior to July 3, 2013, is affirmed.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On April 20, 2007, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability as of August 15, 2002, due to cancer, seizures, short-term memory loss, a broken jaw, and weakness. See Administrative Record ("AR") 173-75, 178, 183. Her application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 122-25, 134-39. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on January 13, 2010, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did Plaintiff's friend. See AR 37-114. On January 29, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. See AR 22-32. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on August 26, 2011, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See AR 6-11; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. Plaintiff sought judicial review, and the District Court for the Western District of Washington reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. AR 1289-1318.
A second administrative hearing was held on February 27, 2013, during which Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to April 20, 2007. AR 1189-1228. The ALJ subsequently issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of July 3, 2013, but not disabled before that date. AR 1045-83. On November 6, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See ECF ## 1, 3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on January 20, 2015. See ECF # 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 the Commissioner for a finding of disability as of her alleged onset date, or further proceedings in the alternative, because the ALJ erred in failing to find Plaintiff's mental health conditions severe at step two, in the absence of her substance abuse, and in failing to accommodate the mental limitations indicated by her providers in assessing her residual functional capacity ("RFC"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred, and therefore affirms the Commissioner's decision.
I. Standards of Review
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 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 & 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))).
II. The ALJ's Findings Regarding Mental Impairments and Limitations
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that her mental conditions were not severe, in the absence of substance abuse. See AR 1050, 1052-67. Specifically, she argues that opinions provided by Mary Lemberg, M.D., Brett Copeland, Psy.D., and Julie Dura, B.A., establish that her mental conditions have more than a minimal effect on her ability to work, and that the ALJ erred in discounting those opinions. The Court will first address the legal standards applicable to reviewing the ALJ's step-two findings and assessment of medical opinion evidence, and then turn to consider whether the ALJ erred in assessing the disputed opinions.
A. Legal ...