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Gladys P. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 11, 2019

GLADYS P., [1] Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [2] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM, OPINION, AND ORDER

          GAIL J. STANDISH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Gladys P. (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge [Dkts. 10 and 11] and briefs addressing disputed issues in the case [Dkt. 18 (“Pl. Br.”), Dkt. 22 (“Def. Br.”)]. The matter is now ready for decision. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that this matter should be affirmed.

         II. ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION UNDER REVIEW

         Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB alleging disability based primarily on whole body pain, possible cirrhosis, and depression. [Dkt. 15, Administrative Record (“AR”) 43.] Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, on reconsideration, and after a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Dante Alegre [AR 1-6, 15-28.]

         Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b)-(g)(1). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 7, 2013, the alleged onset date. [AR 17.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from lumbar strain and generalized arthritis. [AR 17.] The ALJ determined at step three that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. [AR 22.]

         Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of medium work. [AR 22.] Applying this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a home health aide and a general clerk and thus she is not disabled. [AR 26.] Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 1-6.] This appeal followed.

         III. GOVERNING STANDARD

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if: (1) the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Commissioner used correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Brewes v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, or if despite the legal error, the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ Properly Considered Step Two

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential evaluation process by finding that she had no severe mental impairments. Plaintiff contends that she has been consistently diagnosed with depression and prescribed a variety of psychotropic medications including, Prozac, Seroquel, and Citalopram. [Dkt. 18 at 2-3.] Defendant argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment. [Dkt. 22 at 3-7.]

         1. Federal Law

         The Commissioner defines a severe impairment as “[a]n impairment or combination of impairments . . . [that] significantly limit[s] your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” including, inter alia: “understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; use of judgment; responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522. “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) (emphasis added) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Step two “is a de minimis screening device [used] to dispose of groundless claims, and an 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.” Id. (emphasis added) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The claimant bears the burden of proof at step two. See Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). Significantly, the Ninth Circuit has determined that “[t]he mere existence of an impairment is insufficient proof of a disability.” Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678 (9th Cir. 1993). In other words, a medical diagnosis alone does not make an impairment qualify as “severe.”

         2. ...


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