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Parra v. Colvin

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

June 17, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

         Administrative Proceedings

         Plaintiff alleges disability beginning on August 24, 2008 due to a back injury. [Administrative Record ("AR") 205]. In a written hearing decision dated May 10, 2013, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") concluded that plaintiff had medically determinable impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease and obesity, but that those impairments were not severe, singly or in combination. [AR 22]. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled at any time through the date of his decision. [AR 28]. On October 14, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. [AR 1-6].

         Standard of Review

         The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)(internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)).


         Severity Determination

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that he did not suffer from a severe impairment. [JS 4-7].

         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has any severe, medically determinable impairment that meets the durational requirement. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289-1290 (9th Cir. 1996). A medically determinable impairment is one that results "from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. A physical or mental impairment must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 416.908; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)(1), 416.920a(b)(1).

         To assess severity, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to perform "basic work activities."[1]20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a); Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). The ALJ is required to consider the claimant's subjective symptoms in making a severity determination, provided that the claimant "first establishes by objective medical evidence (i.e., signs and laboratory findings) that he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) and that the impairment(s) could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptom(s)." SSR 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181, at *2. A medically determinable 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 ability to work.'" Webb, 433 F.3d at 686 (quoting Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290). The ALJ "may find that a claimant lacks a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments only when [that] conclusion is clearly established by medical evidence." Webb, 433 F.3d at 687 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Here, the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff's back impairment was not severe. First, the objective medical evidence included MRIs of plaintiff's lumbar spine performed in December 2008, August 2009, and November 2011 that revealed degenerative disc disease on multiple levels with a large herniation at L4-L5.[2] [See AR 309, 312-313, 497-498, 513]. Similarly, x-rays taken in April 2012 showed a large disc herniation at L4-L5 with bilateral facet joint arthritis and degenerative disc disease at L2-L3, L3-L4 and L4-L5. [AR 409]. Subsequent x-rays taken in August 2012 revealed "splinting" of plaintiff's lumbar spine suggesting muscle spasm. [AR 427].

         Second, the medical opinions in the record indicate that plaintiff's back impairment had, at the very least, more than a minimal effect on plaintiff's ability to work. For example, in May 2009, Andrew Jarminski, M.D., plaintiff's treating internist, noted that plaintiff had injured his back while lifting pallets at work. [AR 401]. Dr. Jarminski performed a physical examination and found that plaintiff had a limited and painful range of motion of his lumbar spine, paralumbar muscle tenderness at L4 through S1, decreased L5 sensation in the lower extremities, and a positive bilateral straight leg raise test.[3] [AR 403]. After reviewing plaintiff's records, Dr. Jarminski diagnosed lumbar spine discopathy and lower extremity radiculitis. [AR 403]. Dr. Jarminski concluded that plaintiff's back impairment was "clearly in need of surgical intervention." [AR 404].

         In May 2010, plaintiff was evaluated by James Hamada, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon. The examination revealed a limited range of motion of the lumbar spine, a positive straight leg raise test on the right with a positive Lasegue sign, tenderness with muscle spasm from L4 through S1, and decreased sensation over the left L5 dermatome. [AR 304-305]. Dr. Hamada diagnosed L4-L5 herniated nucleus pulposus and ...

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