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Rodriguez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 27, 2018

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



         Natasha Rodriguez (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an SSI application on October 23, 2012.[2] See Administrative Record (“AR”) 179-87. Plaintiff alleged that her disability began in 1996. See AR 236. After her application was denied, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). See AR 256-57. At a January 2015 hearing, the ALJ heard testimony by a vocational expert (“VE”) and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel. See AR 40-65.

         On February 27, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims. See AR 14-39. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since at least October 23, 2012, and that Plaintiff has severe impairments of asymmetric inflammatory polyarthropathy and fibromyalgia. See AR 19. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments of personality disorder and polysubstance abuse were non-severe. See id. Despite Plaintiff's impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: she is limited to lifting or carrying ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; she is able to stand or walk two hours out of an eight-hour work day; she can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour work day; she can occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crawl, or crouch; she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she must avoid concentrated exposure in the workplace to extreme cold and industrial hazards; and she can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. See AR 23-31.

         Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff could work as a food/beverage order clerk and a final assembler. See AR 32. Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. See id.

         The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, which became the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 7-12; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff sought judicial review in this Court. See Dkt. 1.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in improperly considering the medical evidence to conclude that Plaintiff's mental health impairments were not severe, improperly considering the reports and opinions of treating physicians Drs. George Lawry and Brian Pederson and of consultative examiner Dr. Faraz Alam, improperly discrediting her subjective symptom testimony, and failing to address “good cause” to reconsider Plaintiff's prior claim under Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 91-5p. See Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 2-3.

         A. Severity of Mental Impairment

         1. Step Two Requires Only a De Minimis Showing of Limitation 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). To establish that a medically determinable impairment is “severe, ” 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 § 416.921(a).[3] “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 citation omitted) (emphasis in original); 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.”). “[A]n ALJ may find that a claimant lacks a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments only when his conclusion is ‘clearly established by medical evidence.'” Webb, 433 F.3d at 687 (internal citation omitted). Thus, 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. See id. at 688 (requiring analysis beyond step two where there was not a “total absence of objective evidence” of a severe impairment).

         2. The ALJ Erred by Finding Plaintiff's Mental Impairments Non-Severe

         Plaintiff contends that the medical evidence supports a finding of severe mental impairment. See JS at 3-10. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that two state agency doctors (Drs. Donna DeFelice and Sonya Adamo) found her to have a severe mental impairment, see AR 79-80, 103-04, her treating physician (Dr. Valeo Ede) reported anxiety and depression, see AR 361, a licensed clinical social worker documented mental problems manifesting in suicidal gestures and poor school attendance, see AR 400-03, a state agency examining clinical psychologist (Dr. Aaron Bowen) concluded she had “one of the clearest cases” of borderline personality disorder he had ever seen, AR 404-14, an examining physician (Dr. Ralph Lissaur) assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 51 and noted that Plaintiff could not tolerate the stresses of normal employment, see AR 498-502, and another two examining physicians (Drs. George Lawry and Brian Pederson) determined she suffered from depression, see AR 480, 593.

         The Commissioner maintains that any error by the ALJ at this step was not harmful and still results in a finding of no disability because Plaintiff could work as a food/beverage order clerk and final assembler. See JS at 11. The Commissioner also contends that the ALJ's determination at step two was based on the “entire discussion of the medical evidence” rather than the conclusions of various physicians. See id. at 12. Specifically, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly rejected the findings of Drs. DeFelice and Adamo by rejecting the underlying evidence in support of their findings, see id., rejected the opinions of Drs. Bowen and Lissaur on grounds that the opinions were inconsistent with the record as a whole, see id. at 12-14, rejected the clinical social worker's opinion because it was based on an outdated evaluation of Plaintiff and because she is not an acceptable medical source, ...

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