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Derik Williams v. Michael J. Astrue

October 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frederick F. Mumm United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff seeks to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla" but less than a preponderance. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971); Desrosiers v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 575-76 (9th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 529-30 (9th Cir. 1986). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1452 (9th Cir. 1984). However, even if substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be reversed if the proper legal standard was not applied. Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1014-15 (9th Cir. 2003); see also Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996).


Plaintiff raises two issues:

1. Whether the ALJ properly found that plaintiff's mental impairment is not severe; and

2. Whether the ALJ properly rejected an opinion of plaintiff's treating physician.


1. The proper rating of plaintiff's mental impairments.

In the decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from a mental impairment, but that the impairment was not severe. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to follow the five-step sequence set forth in the Social Security regulations for evaluating the severity of plaintiff's mental impairment. The Court finds that remand is not required with respect to this issue.

"An impairment or combination of impairments can be found 'not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on [a claimant's] ability to work.'" Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Social Security Ruling 85-28 and Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a) ("An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities"). Where there is a colorable claim of a mental impairment, the ALJ must evaluate the impairment by*fn1 following specific steps set forth in the Social Security regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(a), 416.920a(a). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a "medically determinable impairment." If the ALJ finds an impairment, he or she must set forth the evidence substantiating the presence of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1). Second, when the claimant establishes these medical findings, the ALJ must rate the degree of functional loss resulting from the impairment by considering four areas of function: (a) activities of daily living; (b) social functioning; (c) concentration, persistence, or pace; and (d) episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(2)-(4), 416.920a(c)(2)-(4). In evaluating the first three areas, the ALJ must use a five-point scale ("[n]one, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme"). Id. at §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920a(c)(4). In rating the episodes of decompensation, the ALJ must use a four-point scale ("[n]one, one or two, three, four or more"). Id.

Third, after rating the degree of functional limitation, the ALJ must determine the severity of the mental impairment, based, inter alia, on the ratings given in the functional areas. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d), 416.920a(d). Fourth, if the mental impairment is found to be severe, the ALJ must determine if it meets or equals a listed mental disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(2), 416.920a(d)(2). Fifth, if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed mental disorder, the ALJ must perform a residual functional capacity assessment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(3), 416.920a(d)(3). Finally, the ALJ's decision "must incorporate the pertinent findings and conclusions" regarding plaintiff's mental impairment, including "a specific finding as to the degree of limitation in each of the functional areas described in [§§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3) ]." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(e)(2), 416.920a(e)(2).

The ALJ found that plaintiff had a medically determinable mental impairment. (AR 14.) The ALJ proceeded to set forth her findings regarding plaintiff's limitations in the four functional areas set forth in the regulations. (Id.) The ALJ then concluded that, because plaintiff suffered from no more than mild limitations in the first three functional areas and no episodes of decompensation, plaintiff's mental impairment is not severe. (Id.) The ALJ supported her ...

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