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Caballero v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

March 6, 2015

EVERARDO ZEPEDA CABALLERO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DOUGLAS F. McCORMICK, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Everardo Zepeda Caballero appeals from the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. Because the Court concludes that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments were non-severe, the ALJ's decision is reversed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed his application for benefits on April 8, 2011, alleging disability beginning June 30, 2010. Administrative Record ("AR") 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: obesity, strain of the cervical and lumbar region, protruded lumbar disc, sprain of the collateral ligaments of the right knee, asthma, hypertension, hypothyroidism, peripheral neuropathy of the right hand, degenerative changes of the feet, and depression. AR 16. However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited his ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. As a result, the AJL concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 25.

II.

ISSUE PRESENTED

The parties dispute whether the ALJ's determination at step two of the five-step evaluation process that Plaintiff did not suffer from any severe impairments was erroneous. See Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 3.

III.

DISCUSSION

At step two, an immediate finding of non-disability is appropriate if a claimant is not suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Step two thus serves as "a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). An impairment is not severe "only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual[]s ability to work." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Such a finding must be "clearly established by medical evidence.'" Webb v. Barnhart , 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *3).

A severe impairment or combination of impairments exists when these impairments have more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to do basic work activities. See Webb , 433 F.3d at 686; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a) ("An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [a person's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities."). Basic work activities are "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs, " including physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying or handling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b); Webb , 433 F.3d at 686. If a claimant meets his burden of demonstrating he suffers from an impairment affecting his ability to perform basic work activities, "the ALJ must find that the impairment is severe' and move to the next step in the SSA's five-step process." Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1160 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Webb , 433 F.3d at 686.

Plaintiff's medical record includes a January 24, 2012 finding by Dr. Vicente Bernabe, an examining orthopedist, who found that Plaintiff has a "musculoligamentous strain of the cervical and lumbar regions" of his back on the basis of x-rays showing "a slight loss of cervical lordosis" and a "straightening of lumbar lordosis." AR 279-80. Dr. Bernabe found that Plaintiff was limited to lifting and carrying 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. AR 280. He also found that Plaintiff could walk and stand six hours out of an eight-hour workday. Id. An agency reviewing physician, Dr. Leonard Naiman, reviewed Dr. Bernabe's assessment and agreed that Plaintiff was limited to medium work. AR 81.

The limitations imposed by Dr. Bernabe's assessment contradicted the findings of Dr. Jeff Sao, who performed an internal medicine examination of Plaintiff on July 7, 2011. AR 254-59. Dr. Sao found no functional limitations, finding that Plaintiff could lift and carry without limitations and could walk or stand without restriction. AR 258. An agency reviewing physician, Dr. J. Hartman, ...


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