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Hicks v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

January 20, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Hicks's Complaint [Dkt. 3] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for supplemental security income benefits.

         Hicks suffers from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the left knee, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, organic mental disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record 11. She applied for SSI benefits in January 2011, alleging she became disabled beginning in May 2006. See AR 104. That application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge M.J. Adams in April 2012. See id. After the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, Hicks appealed, and the Appeals Council remanded the case for further proceedings. A second hearing was held before the ALJ in November 2014. See AR 9. Hicks, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a mental health clinician and a vocational expert. See AR 69-98.

         The ALJ determined Hicks to be not disabled. See AR 9-26. The Appeals Council denied Hicks's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. In July 2016, Hicks filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 3.

         Hicks argues the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating Hicks's severe impairments at step two; (2) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; and (3) in assessing Hicks's residual functional capacity and finding her capable of performing other work available in the national economy.

         The Commissioner argues the ALJ did not err in evaluating Hicks's severe impairments or the medical evidence, so the ALJ's RFC and step-five finding that Hicks could perform other work were supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.


         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner applied the “proper legal standards, ” and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. See Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. 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 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)).[1]

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Hicks's Severe Impairments

         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, “the medical severity” of a claimant's impairments is considered. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant has no “severe medically determinable” impairment, she will be found not disabled. Id. An impairment is “not severe” if it does not “significantly limit [the 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 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 at *1. The claimant 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, however, is a de minimis screening device used to dispose of groundless claims. See Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). Once step two is resolved in a claimant's favor, harmful error only occurs if the ALJ fails to properly analyze evidence from any impairments that shows work-related limitations beyond those assessed in the RFC. See Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1076 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (error is harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination”). Plaintiff has the burden of establishing that an error resulted in actual harm. See Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Here, the ALJ found that Hicks had several severe impairments at step two and continued with the sequential evaluation process. See AR 11. Still, Hicks argues the ALJ erred by failing to find her shoulder impairment to be severe, and that the error is harmful because “the ALJ did not specifically discuss the shoulder condition at step four.” See Dkt. 19, pp. 4-5. However, while Hicks notes symptoms and resulting treatment related to her shoulder impairment, she fails to identify any specific functional limitations missing from the RFC. See id. Regardless, the ALJ explained in his decision that the medical evidence did not support limitations as a result of Hicks's shoulder pain beyond those assessed in the RFC, and gave sufficient reasons to discount any of Hicks's subjective complaints.[2] See AR 12, 16-19. Therefore, Hicks has not met her burden to show harmful error in the ALJ's assessment of Hicks's impairments at step two and, as required, thereafter.

         II. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical ...

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