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Ryabov v. Berryhill

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

October 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.



         Jennifer Ann Ryabov 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 reverses the Commissioner's decision denying benefits and remands for an award of benefits.


         Ms. Ryabov filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 6, 2013, and another one for SSI benefits on September 12, 2013, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning January 20, 2013. Dkt. 11, Administrative Record (AR) 20. Both applications were denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ), at which Ms. Ryabov and a vocational expert appeared and testified. AR 40-85.

         In a written decision on April 7, 2015, the ALJ found that Ms. Ryabov could perform her past relevant work and therefore was not disabled. AR 20-34. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Ryabov's request for review on October 7, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Ms. Ryabov then appealed that decision in a complaint filed with this Court on December 14, 2016. Dkt. 3; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Ms. Ryabov seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred:

(1) in not finding certain conditions to be severe impairments;
(2) in evaluating the medical evidence;
(3) in discounting Ms. Ryabov's credibility;
(4) in assessing Ms. Ryabov's residual functional capacity; and
(6) in finding Ms. Ryabov could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ erred in discounting Ms. Ryabov's testimony on her subjective symptoms, and therefore in assessing her RFC and finding her not disabled. Accordingly, the Court reverses the decision to deny benefits and remand this matter for further administrative proceedings.


         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 weighing of different pieces of medical evidence, his determination at step two that certain conditions are not severe impairments, his discounting of Ms. Ryabov's testimony on her subjective symptoms, and his resulting assessment of Ms. Ryabov's RFC and conclusion that she can perform 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, 871 F.3d 664, 2017 WL 4053751, at *6 (9th Cir. Sept. 14, 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. In this case, the ALJ determined that Ms. Ryabov had three severe impairments: trigeminal neuralgia, migraines, and obesity. AR 22.

         Ms. Ryabov contends that the ALJ erred in failing to find anxiety, depression, and episodes of syncope to be severe impairments at step two. She argues that the ALJ performed only a cursory analysis of her impairments that ignored medical evidence showing she suffered from anxiety and depression and that they limited her ability to work. See AR 358, 368-69, 373, 386, 403, 405-09, 416, 453, 457, 461, 465, 482. She also contends the ALJ ignored evidence that syncope was a severe impairment. AR 345-47, 361, 364, 428, 465, 481, 495, 565. The Court disagrees, and holds that the ALJ's decision concerning severe impairments at step two was correct. Even assuming, for purposes of argument, that any of the errors alleged by Ms. Ryabov had occurred, such error would have been harmless.

         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, 869 F.3d 1040, 1048-49 (9th Cir. 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.'” Buck, 869 F.3d at 1049 (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 ...

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