United States District Court, E.D. California
ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY COMPLAINT INTRODUCTION
GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Joanna Barbosa ("Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.
BACKGROUND AND PRIOR PROCEEDINGS
Plaintiff first applied for SSI on January 14, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2008, due to a mood disorder. AR 105, 123-126. At the time of her application, she was twenty years old and had completed the eleventh grade. Plaintiff had never worked.
Plaintiff's SSI application was denied initially, and upon reconsideration. AR 39-52, 62-66, 71-75. She subsequently requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 77-81. ALJ Laura Speck Havens held a hearing on August 3, 2011. AR 39-52. On August 17, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 23-33. The Appeals Council denied review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner resulting in the filing of the instant appeal. AR 1-3.
THE DISABILITY DETERMINATION PROCESS
To achieve uniformity in the decision-making process, the Commissioner has established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). The ALJ proceeds step by step in order and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable "severe" impairments; (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f).
I. Summary of the ALJ's Findings
Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 23-34. More particularly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff not engaged in substantial activity since January 4, 2010. AR 25. Further, the ALJ identified depression and borderline intellectual functioning as severe impairments. AR 25. Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that the severity of Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or exceed any of the listing impairments. AR 25-27.
Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but noted the following nonexertional limitations: 1) a poor ability to handle stress, 2) a fair ability to deal with others, and 3) that Plaintiff should be limited to simple and routine tasks. AR 32. The ALJ defined poor as "seriously limited but not precluded, " and fair as "limited but satisfactory." AR 32. After noting that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's RFC in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 ("the grids"), and determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in the national economy. AR 32-33.
Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: 1) failing to incorporate all of the findings made by Dr. Ewing into the RFC; 2) failing to include her own finding of moderate limitations with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, and social functioning in formulating Plaintiff's RFC; and 3) applying the grids rather than eliciting the testimony of a vocational expert (VE) to assess the vocational impact of Ms. Barbosa's nonexertional limitations. (Docs. 12 and 18).
A. Medical Record
The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. AR 177-300. Plaintiff received treatment and services from a number of mental health professionals. However, at issue in this appeal are the opinions of three doctors that are discussed in more detail below.
a) Consultative Examiner, Dr. Troy Ewing, Psy.D
On April 23, 2010, Dr. Troy Ewing, Psy.D., a consultative examiner, performed a comprehensive psychological evaluation at the request of the state agency. AR 244-250. After meeting with Plaintiff, Dr. Ewing diagnosed Plaintiff with a Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent Moderate (AR 247), and opined that, "[o]verall, Plaintiff's prognosis is "fair, " however, her "mental health symptoms may be chronic." AR 248. He also noted that Plaintiff "has a poor ability to handle normal work related stress from a competitive work environment, " and that her "[m]ental health symptoms may impact [her] ability to handle work related stress." AR 248. Specifically, Dr. Ewing noted that Plaintiff:
* Is able to adequately perform one or two step simple repetitive tasks and may have some difficulty with complex tasks as there may be ...