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Connie F. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 10, 2019

CONNIE F., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING DENIAL OF BENEFITS

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Complaint (Dkt. 4) for review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance (“DI”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. This is the second time this matter has been before the Court. See Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. 9) at 1077-79.

         Plaintiff has severe impairments of “recurrent herpatic [sic] rash (also diagnosed as shingles and recurrent herpes simplex virus), and degenerative disc disease.” Id. at 1795. In 2012 and 2013, Plaintiff applied for DI and SSI benefits, originally alleging disability as of December 12, 2005. See Id. at 79, 196-200, 206-14. Plaintiff later amended her disability onset date to November 9, 2006. Id. at 1021, 1792. Plaintiff's applications were denied on initial review and on reconsideration. Id. at 79-87, 91-110.

         At Plaintiff's request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ruperta Alexis held a hearing on Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 42-78. On April 25, 2014, ALJ Alexis issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying her claim for benefits. Id. at 28-36. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 11-14. Plaintiff then sought review in this Court. See Id. at 1097-1100.

         On October 12, 2016, based on the parties' stipulation, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik issued a decision reversing and remanding the ALJ's decision for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 1081-82. Judge Lasnik ordered that the ALJ on remand must update and reevaluate the medical evidence, reevaluate Plaintiff's symptom testimony, reassess Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and ability to perform other work, offer Plaintiff the opportunity for a new hearing, and conduct further proceedings as necessary to reevaluate the disability determination.[1] Id.

         On remand, ALJ M.J. Adams held a second hearing. Id. at 1017-59. On May 14, 2018, ALJ Adams issued a decision again finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and denying her claim for benefits. Id. at 1792-1806. The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, so the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(d), 416.1484(d).

         Plaintiff argues that ALJ Adams erred in finding that Plaintiff's alleged somatoform disorder was not a severe impairment, and in discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. 24) at 1. Plaintiff asks the Court to remand this matter for further administrative proceedings. Id.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the 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). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A. The ALJ Did Not Harmfully Err in Finding That Plaintiff's Somatoform Disorder Was Not A Severe Impairment

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that her somatoform disorder was not a severe impairment. Pl. Op. Br. at 2-8. At step two of the disability evaluation, ALJ Adams determined that Plaintiff had a medically determinable impairment of somatoform disorder, but found that it did not cause more than minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities. AR at 1796. ALJ Adams noted that Douglas Robinson, M.D., diagnosed Plaintiff with somatization disorder, but found that Plaintiff had “no permanent impairment” of her mental functioning. Id. ALJ Adams further noted that the record showed “scant treatment for mental health concerns.” Id.

         The step two analysis is a gatekeeping device used to screen out weak claims. See Buck v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1048 (9th Cir. 2017) (citing Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146-47 (1987)). At step two, the ALJ must determine if the claimant suffers from any impairments that are “severe.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment or combination of impairments may be found ‘not severe only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's work.'” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686-87 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996)). As long as the claimant has at least one severe impairment, the disability inquiry moves on to step three. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         Plaintiff has failed to show that the ALJ harmfully erred at step two in finding that Plaintiff's alleged somatoform disorder was not a severe impairment. See Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012) (holding that the party challenging an administrative decision bears the burden of proving harmful error) (citing Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 407-09 (2009)). The record contains indications of somatization. See, e.g., AR at 314, 478, 502. But the record also contains evidence that Plaintiff's alleged somatoform disorder does not impair her ability to work. See, e.g., id. at 108, 119, 1651-66. As ALJ Adams noted, Dr. Robinson opined that Plaintiff had “no permanent impairment” from her somatization disorder, and was “capable of normal activities, including gainful employment, without any restrictions despite physical complaints that suggest otherwise.” Id. at 1666. Plaintiff has failed to show that ALJ Adams reached an unreasonable conclusion in agreeing with Dr. ...


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