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Hahto-Aune v. Berryhill

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

January 24, 2018

LISA HAHTO-AUNE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Lisa Hahto-Aune filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 5.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred at Step Two and in his treatment of the medical opinion evidence. Had the ALJ properly considered all of Plaintiff's severe impairments at Step Two and the medical opinion evidence, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of October 10, 2013. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 31. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 31. ALJ Wayne N. Araki held a hearing on January 12, 2016. AR 57-97. In a decision dated March 2, 2016, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 31-41. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred: (1) by failing to find Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease as a severe impairment at Step Two; (2) in his treatment of the medical opinion evidence; and (3) by not giving clear and convincing reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony, and not giving germane reasons to reject lay witness testimony. Dkt. 12, pp. 2, 7-20.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered all of Plaintiff's severe impairments at Step Two.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to find Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease a severe impairment at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process. Dkt. 12, pp. 7-8; Dkt. 14, pp. 1-5.

         Step Two of the administration's evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant “has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) (1996). An impairment is “not severe” if it does not “significantly limit” the ability to conduct basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). “Basic work activities are ‘abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs, including, for example, walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying or handling.'” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 140.1521(b)). An impairment or combination of impairments “can be found ‘not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality having ‘no more than a minimal effect on an individual[']s ability to work.'” Id. (quoting Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988) (adopting Social Security Ruling “SSR” 85-28)).

         At Step Two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's only severe impairment was “affective disorder/bipolar disorder.” AR 33. The ALJ further stated “[t]he objective medical records do not demonstrate a severe physical impairment” and Plaintiff's “record includes reports of other physical symptoms and conditions that were no more than transient or did not cause significant limitations.” AR 33-34. Thus, the ALJ did not find that Plaintiff had any severe physical impairments at Step Two.[1] See AR 33-34.

         On July 14, 2008, Dr. F. Christian Killien, M.D., an acceptable medical source, reviewed magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) of Plaintiff's cervical spine and diagnosed her with degenerative disc disease “at four levels with principally left sided foraminal narrowing.” AR 541. Dr. Killien noted that the MRI of Plaintiff's cervical spine showed “moderate foraminal narrowing bilaterally” at the C3-4 level. AR 541. Likewise, the C4-5 level showed “moderate foraminal narrowing bilaterally, ” and the C5-6 level was “open on the right but moderately narrowed on the left.” AR 541. In addition, the C6-7 level was “reasonably open on the right and moderately to severely narrowed on the left.” AR 541.

         The record contains evidence showing Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease causes functional limitations, as well. On the MRI report, Dr. Killien noted Plaintiff suffered from neck pain “with radiation into both arms” and “tingling/numbness of fingertips related to neck pain.”[2]AR 541. Treatment notes from Renee Joergens, P.T., on January 7, 2016 stated objective testing revealed Plaintiff's cervical spine had moderate loss of flexion. AR 574-75. Several other treatment notes from 2013 through 2016 further document Plaintiff's neck and back pain and subsequent functional limitations. See, e.g., AR 322 (“neck and back pain”), 406-10 (cervical spine contained “subluxations with spasm, hypomobility and end point tenderness”), 411 (“restrictions demonstrated in the cervical and/or lumbar spine, ” as well as “[l]ingering left sided lower back pain”), 522 (medical care given for “[b]ack pain and muscle spasms”). Since Plaintiff's neck pain, back pain, and functional limitations are documented throughout medical treatment notes spanning several years, the ALJ's assertion that Plaintiff's physical conditions were “transient” is not supported by substantial evidence.

         In addition, Plaintiff's hearing testimony further demonstrates the functional limitations caused by her degenerative disc disease.[3] For instance, Plaintiff reported she struggled with dropping things when she was working due to finger numbness and “stabbing” feelings in her fingers. AR 82-83; see also AR 541 (Dr. Killien noting Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease causes finger numbness). Plaintiff ...


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