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Smith-Miles v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge.

         Lora Lee Smith-Miles ("Plaintiff) challenges the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that she had certain "mild" mental limitations[2], but failed to include them in the hypotheticals to the vocational expert ("VE") and incorporate them into the residual functional capacity ("RFC"). (See Joint Stip. at 4-7, 12). The Court addresses Plaintiffs contention below, and finds that reversal is not warranted.

         A. Challenge to Hypotheticals Not Properly Preserved for Appeal

         Preliminarily, as a rule, "when claimants are represented by counsel, they must raise all issues and evidence at their administrative hearings in order to preserve them on appeal." Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1115 (9th Cir. 1999).

         In the instant case, Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the administrative hearing and was allowed to pose hypotheticals to the VE, but did not mention the mild limitations she complains are missing here.[3] (AR at 55-63); see Howard v. Astrue, 330 F.App'x 128, 130 (9th Cir. 2009) (claimant waived argument that ALJ's hypotheticals were inadequate where claimant's attorney had an opportunity to pose his own hypotheticals but never mentioned the allegedly erroneously omitted limitation).

         Accordingly, the issue was not properly preserved for appeal.

         B. The ALJ Properly Assessed Plaintiffs RFC

         As a rule, when formulating a claimant's RFC, an ALJ must consider all the relevant evidence in the record, including medical records, lay evidence, and the effects of symptoms reasonably attributable to medically determinable impairments. See Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 883 (9th Cir. 2006). However, the ALJ "need not discuss all evidence presented." Vincent ex rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). Rather, the ALJ must explain only why "significant probative evidence has been rejected." Id. at 1395 (citation omitted).

         Here, first, the ALJ specifically considered Plaintiffs mental health limitations of anxiety and depression, and discussed how Plaintiff took medication for those symptoms for 15 years and was able to work competitively through almost all of that period. (AR at 16, 419); Warre v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 439 F.3d 1001, 1006 (9th Cir. 2006) (impairments that can be controlled are not disabling); Gregory v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 664, 667 (9th Cir. 1988) (upholding finding that claimant's back problems were not disabling where that impairment had not prevented her from working).

         Second, Plaintiff stopped working for reasons unrelated to her mental health. (AR at 16, 20); cf. Bruton v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 824, 828 (9th Cir. 2001) (allegation of disabling pain discounted because claimant "was laid off, rather than ... injured"); see Kennerson v. Colvin, 2015 WL 3930167, at *3 (CD. Cal. June 25, 2015) (RFC determination supported in part because claimant indicated she stopped working after injuring her back during a fall at work, a reason unrelated to her fibromyalgia). Notably, Plaintiff: (1) told Dr. John D. Kauffman that she would have returned to work had she not been laid off; and (2) told Dr. Jahan, and testified at the administrative hearing, that she stopped working because she fell and was terminated, not because of mental health limitations. (AR at 20, 38, 366, 420, 520.)

         Third, the ALJ specifically discussed Dr. Jahan's mild limitation findings earlier in the decision and ultimately gave "great weight" to her overall assessment of Plaintiffs mental health, which is supportive of a non-disability determination.[4] (AR at 16, 422); see, e.g., Atkinson v. Astrue, 389 F.App'x 804, 808 (10th Cir. 2010) (upholding RFC even though ALJ did not mention all moderate mental health limitations found by doctor because ALJ accepted doctor's ultimate opinion that claimant could perform non-complex work); Harris v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 605 F.App'x 612, 614 (9th Cir. 2015) (ALJ's interpretation of physician's opinion comported with ALJ's ultimate determination that claimant could perform less than a full range of sedentary work).

         Thus, for all the above reasons, the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiffs mental health limitations in formulating the RFC.

         C. No Prejudice

         Finally, any error in assessing the RFC or posing hypothetical questions to the ...

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