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JW U. C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 31, 2019

JW U. C., Plaintiff,


          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”) 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. 10.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not err in assessing the residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the medical opinion evidence, or a disability rating from the Veteran's Administration (“VA”). Accordingly, the ALJ's finding of non-disability is supported by substantial evidence, and the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         On September 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 5, 2016.[1] See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) 15, 245-51. Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to August 30, 2016. AR 15, 38. His application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. AR 122-28, 130-36. A hearing was held before ALJ Stephanie Martz on July 17, 2018. AR 35-64. In a decision dated August 10, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 12-26. The Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 20, 2018. AR 1-6. The ALJ's decision of August 10, 2018 is the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to adequately explain how moderate limitations assessed in connection with the paragraph B criteria were incorporated into the RFC; (2) failing to properly assess opinion evidence from Karen Bolton, M.D. and Benjamin Aleshire, Ph.D.; and (3) giving insufficient weight to a disability rating from the VA. Dkt. 12, pp. 2-10.


         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)).


         I. Whether the ALJ properly assessed the RFC.

         Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ erred in finding that the RFC limitation to understanding, remembering, and carrying out routine and predictable tasks was sufficient to accommodate the moderate limitations the ALJ assessed in connection with the paragraph B criteria. Dkt. 12, p. 6. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “impliedly asserts” that this RFC limitation was sufficient to accommodate Plaintiff's moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, and applying information and concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace. Dkt. 12, p. 6. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ has not provided an adequate explanation for how the RFC accommodates moderate limitations in both domains. Dkt. 12, p. 6.

         The ALJ must evaluate the paragraph B criteria to determine if the severity of the claimant's mental impairment meets or is medically equal to the criteria of a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. To meet the paragraph B criteria, a claimant must have an extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning: understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P app. 1, § 12.00(E).

         Social Security regulations provide that in assessing disability claims, adjudicators must remember that the limitations identified in the paragraph B criteria “are not an RFC assessment but are used to rate the severity of mental impairment(s) at steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation process. See Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p.

         “Between steps three and four, the ALJ must, as an intermediate step, assess the claimant's RFC.” Bray v. Comm'r of Social Security Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222-23 (9th Cir. 2009). In formulating the mental RFC assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ is required to perform “a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories found in paragraphs B and C of the adult mental disorders ...

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