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Romo v. Colvin

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

August 3, 2016

LUCIA ROMO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DOUGLAS F. McCORMICK United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Lucia Romo (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) disability benefits. Because the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence in the record, the ALJ’s decision is affirmed and the matter is dismissed with prejudice.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on September 6, 2011, alleging disability with an onset date of August 1, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 182-90. After Plaintiff’s application was denied at the initial stage, an ALJ held two administrative hearings. AR 32-75. Plaintiff was represented at both hearings and testified at the first. AR 32-72. On September 4, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 15-31. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on April 13, 2015. AR 1-4. This action followed.

         In reaching his decision the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, obesity, and mood disorder. AR 20. The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s arthritis and gastroesophageal reflux were both nonsevere. AR 20. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff had “a mild limitation in activities of daily living, a mild limitation in social functioning, a moderate limitation in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decomposition.” AR 20. The ALJ found that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairment. AR 20-21. The ALJ determined that despite her impairments, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with some additional limitations, most notably a limitation to simple work. AR 21. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. AR 68-71. In response to a hypothetical involving a person of Plaintiff’s age with Plaintiff’s education, work experience, and RFC, the VE testified that such a person would be able to perform as a courtesy clerk and hand packer. AR 68-69. The ALJ relied on the VE’s testimony to conclude that Plaintiff was capable of making the adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 26-27. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 27.

         II.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         The parties dispute whether the ALJ erred: (1) in determining severe impairments, (2) in determining Plaintiff’s credibility, (3) in rejecting lay witness opinions, (4) in determining the RFC, and (5) in relying on the VE’s testimony. See Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 3-53.

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ’s Determination of Severe Impairments

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff’s arthritis, anxiety, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”) were not severe. JS at 3-14.

         1. Applicable Law

         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the claimant has the burden to show that she has one or more “severe” medically determinable impairments that can be expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987) (noting claimant bears burden at step two); Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1180 (9th Cir. 2003) (same); 20 C.F.R. § 416.908 (defining “physical or mental impairment”), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) (claimants will be found not disabled at step two if they “do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement”). A medically determinable impairment must be established by signs, symptoms, or laboratory findings; it cannot be established based solely on a claimant’s own statement of his symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 416.908; Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1004-05 (9th Cir. 2005); SSR 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187, at *1 (July 2, 1996). A “medical sign” is “an anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormality that can be shown by medically acceptable clinical diagnostic techniques.” Ukolov, 420 F.3d at 1005 (quoting SSR 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187, at *1 n.2 (July 2, 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)); accord 20 C.F.R. § 416.928(b).

         To establish that a medically determinable impairment is “severe, ” moreover, the claimant must show that it “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c); accord Id. § 416.921(a). “An 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 v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.”). Applying the applicable standard of review to the requirements of step two, a court must determine whether an ALJ had substantial evidence to find that the medical evidence clearly established that the claimant did not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Webb, 433 F.3d at 687.

         2. Analysis

         a. Arthritis

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff’s arthritis nonsevere and should have given more weight to the treatment records of her treating physician as well as Plaintiff’s subjective complaints about the effects of the impairment on her ability to work. JS at 4-8. The Court disagrees.

         The ALJ noted that there is no objective diagnostic evidence to support a finding of severity and that the positive ANA laboratory test cited by Plaintiff is not sufficient to establish the severity of arthritis. AR 20. Although Plaintiff’s treating physician Dr. Sanders diagnosed Plaintiff with arthritis in August 2011, the ALJ noted that the record lacked objective evidence, such as an x-ray, showing evidence of arthritis. AR 20. The ALJ also gave weight to the consultative examiner’s findings that Plaintiff had “normal range of motion and a ...


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