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Jefferson v. Berryhill

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

February 7, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Jefferson's Complaint [Dkt. 3] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's partially favorable decision regarding disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits.

         Jefferson suffers from degenerative disc disease and gout. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record 620. He applied for disability insurance and SSI benefits in May 2011, alleging he became disabled beginning in November 2006. See AR 617-18. Those applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 617. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Tom L. Morris, and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision in September 2012. See Id. Jefferson appealed, and this Court remanded the case for further proceedings. See Id. The ALJ held a second hearing in September 2015. See Id. Jefferson, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 636-81.

         The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, determining Jefferson to be disabled as of April 9, 2013, but not before that date. See AR 617-29. The Appeals Council denied Jefferson's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 587-90; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. In July 2016, Jefferson filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 3.

         Jefferson argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits before April 9, 2013, should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings because the ALJ erred; (1) in evaluating Jefferson's severe impairments at step two; (2) in evaluating whether Jefferson's impairments met a listing at step three; (3) in evaluating Jefferson's testimony; and (4) in assessing Jefferson's residual functional capacity and finding him capable of performing other work available in the national economy before April 9, 2013.

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not err in evaluating Jefferson's severe impairments, whether they met a listing, or Jefferson's testimony, so the ALJ's RFC and step-five finding that Jefferson 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); Can 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 Browner 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)).[2]

         I. Jefferson'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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If the claimant has no "severe medically determinable" impairment, then he 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (c), 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 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, 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); 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, regarding the contested period, the ALJ found that Jefferson had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease at step two and continued with the sequential evaluation I process. See AR 620. Still, Jefferson argues that the ALJ erred by failing to find a herniated disc and lumbar radiculopathy to be severe impairments and that the error is harmful because the ALJ failed to consider whether Jefferson was eligible for a closed period of disability from November 2006 through May 2008. See Dkt. 12, pp. 4-15. Jefferson alleges that the ALJ's exclusion of these impairments at step two affected the rest of the ALJ's analysis. See Id. Any such impact is discussed below.

         II. ...

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