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Hatfield v. Berryhill

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

September 18, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Debra 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.


         Ms. 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.

         In a 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.

         Ms. 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 impairments;
(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 national economy.

         For 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.


         The 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 national economy.

         This 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).

         This 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).

         I. The ALJ's Step Two Determination

         At step 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).

         The 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).

         The 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. 2012)).

         Here, 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.

         Because 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 ...

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