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 November 15, 2006, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of January 1, 2005. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record ("AR") 325. In a decision dated September 1, 2009, an administrate law judge found the claimant not disabled, and plaintiff appealed this decision. See id. On May 17, 2012, this Court issued an order reversing the decision and remanding the case for further administrative proceedings, finding the administrative law judge improperly concluded the claimant was not disabled. See AR 365-381. Pursuant to the order, the Appeals Council ("AC") vacated the September 1, 2009 decision and directed an administrative law judge to offer the claimant an opportunity for a hearing, take any further action needed to complete the administrative record, and issue a new decision. See AR 384.
A new hearing was held before a different administrative law judge ("the ALJ") on February 21, 2013, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 343-64. On April 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a recommended decision, determining plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 323-42. In a final decision dated July 2, 2014, the AC reviewed additional evidence and argument submitted by plaintiff and found plaintiff to be not disabled from her application date through the date of the ALJ's recommended unfavorable decision. See AR 306-19.
The Commissioner "is empowered to affirm, modify or reverse the ALJ's decision. Such decision then becomes final and is binding upon the parties unless review is sought in district court." Taylor v. Heckler, 765 F.2d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 1985). Where the AC modifies an ALJ's decision, the task of this Court "is to review the decision of the Appeals Council under the substantial evidence standard, not the decision of the ALJ." Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986). This Court has statutory jurisdiction to review "any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Here, the AC decision of July 2, 2014, issued after plaintiff's February 21, 2013 hearing is "the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security." AR 306.
On September 3, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on November 7, 2014. See Dkt. 9. 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, because the AC erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record; and (4) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore recommends that defendant's decision to deny benefits 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 AC's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence in the Record
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 two of the evaluation process, the Commissioner 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. § 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. § 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.
To be determined to have a disability, plaintiff must further establish that she is unable to "to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to the medically determinable impairment, "which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). Not only must the impairment itself last or be expected to last for 12 months, but those work-related limitations stemming therefrom alleged to be disabling also must last for the requisite time period. See Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-222 (2002) (upholding defendant's interpretation of Social Security Act's definition of "disability" as requiring that both medically determinable impairment and resulting inability to engage in substantial gainful activity must last for "not less than 12 months"); Carmickle v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1165 (9th Cir. 2008) (upholding ...