United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
DEBRA DENICE HATFIELD, Ms. Hatfield,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY
Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge.
Denice Hatfield has brought this matter for judicial review
of defendant's denial of her applications for disability
insurance and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits.
The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the
undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c),
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For
the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the
Commissioner's decision denying benefits.
Hatfield filed an application for SSI benefits on July 28,
2014, and another one for disability insurance benefits on
August 6, 2014, alleging in both applications that she became
disabled beginning May 14, 2014. Dkt. 10, Administrative
Record (AR) 18. Both applications were denied on initial
administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. A
hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on
August 16, 2016. AR 36-76. Ms. Hatfield and a vocational
expert appeared and testified.
written decision on September 6, 2016, the ALJ found that Ms.
Hatfield could perform her past relevant work and other jobs
existing in the national economy, and therefore that she was
not disabled. See AR 18-30. The Appeals Council
denied Ms. Hatfield's request for review on November 30,
2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. AR 1. Ms. Hatfield appealed that decision in a
complaint filed with this Court on January 26, 2017. Dkt. 3;
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.
Hatfield seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand
for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further
administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred:
(1) in not finding depression and anxiety to be severe
(2) in discounting Ms. Hatfield's subjective testimony;
(3) in evaluating the medical opinion evidence;
(4) in assessing Ms. Hatfield's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”); and
(5) in finding Ms. Hatfield could perform her past relevant
work and other jobs existing in significant numbers in the
reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ did not
err as Ms. Hatfield alleges. Accordingly, the Court affirms
the decision to deny benefits.
Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation
process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.520, 416.920. If the ALJ finds the
claimant disabled or not disabled at any particular step, the
ALJ makes the disability determination at that step and the
sequential evaluation process ends. See id. At issue
here is the ALJ's determination at step two that certain
conditions are not severe impairments, her weighing of
different pieces of medical evidence, her discounting of Ms.
Hatfield's testimony on her subjective symptoms, and her
resulting assessment of Ms. Hatfield's RFC and conclusion
that she can perform her past work and other jobs in the
Court affirms an ALJ's determination that a claimant is
not disabled if the ALJ applied “proper legal
standards” in weighing the evidence and making the
determination and if “substantial evidence in the
record as a whole supports” that determination.
Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir.
1986). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v.
Berryhill, 862 F.3d 987, 996 (2017) (quoting
Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). This
requires “‘more than a mere scintilla,
'” though “‘less than a
preponderance'” of the evidence. Id.
(quoting Desrosiers, 846 F.2d at 576).
Court will thus uphold the ALJ's findings if
“inferences reasonably drawn from the record”
support them. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If more
than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the
evidence, then this Court must uphold the ALJ's
interpretation. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579
(9th Cir. 1984).
The ALJ's Step Two Determination
two of the sequential 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), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); Social Security
Ruling (SSR) 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181, at *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, at *3. An impairment
is not severe if the evidence establishes only a slight
abnormality that has “no more than a minimal effect on
an individual[']s ability to work.” SSR 85-28, 1985
WL 56856, at *3; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273,
1290 (9th Cir. 1996); Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d
303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988).
step two inquiry is a de minimis screening device
used to dispose of groundless claims. Smolen, 80
F.3d at 1290. The Ninth Circuit recently emphasized that this
inquiry “is not meant to identify the impairments that
should be taken into account when determining the RFC.”
Buck v. Berryhill, No. 14-35976, 2017 WL 3862450, at
*5 (9th Cir. Sept. 5, 2017) (rejecting claim that ALJ erred
after second hearing, where ALJ found new severe impairments
but did not change RFC). The court noted that in assessing a
claimant's RFC an ALJ “must consider limitations
and restrictions imposed by all of an individual's
impairments, even those that are not
‘severe.'” Id. (citing Titles II
& XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial
Claims, Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p,
1996 WL 374184, at *5 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996)). Thus, the RFC
“should be exactly the same regardless of
whether certain impairments are considered ‘severe'
or not.” Id. (emphasis added).
Ninth Circuit concluded, in the case before it, that because
the ALJ decided step two in the claimant's favor and was
required to consider all impairments in the RFC, whether
“severe” or not, “[a]ny alleged error is
therefore harmless and cannot be the basis for a
remand.” Buck, 2017 WL 3862450, at *5 (citing
Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir.
Ms. Hatfield contends that the ALJ erred in failing to find
anxiety and depression to be severe impairments at step two.
She contends the ALJ ignored evidence that Ms. Hatfield
complained of anxiety and depression symptoms for years, that
her providers diagnosed her with and treated her for those
conditions, and that those conditions limited her ability to
work. See AR 570, 573, 584, 601, 608, 622; see
also 42, 45, 56, 67.
the ALJ decided step two in Ms. Hatfield's favor,
however, the ALJ was already required to consider evidence of
her anxiety and depression in ...