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Grace E. F. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 19, 2019

GRACE E. F., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits. In accordance with the Court's case management order, the parties have filed memorandum briefs addressing the merits of the disputed issues. The matter is now ready for decision.


         In January 2015, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff originally alleged disability beginning July 1, 2007, but subsequently amended her alleged onset date to July 30, 2012. (Administrative Record [“AR”] 15, 61-62, 186-194.) Plaintiff's application was denied. (AR 111-116.) Thereafter, a hearing took place before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. (AR 32-91.)

         In a decision dated February 13, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and arthritis of the left and right thumbs. (AR 18.) The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as including the ability to: lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; frequently operate hand controls; frequently handle and finger bilaterally; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts; and frequently be exposed to extreme cold and vibration. (AR 22.) Relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 25-26.)

         The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR 1-6), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.


         1. Whether the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe mental impairment prior to her last date insured (June 30, 2015).

         2. Whether the ALJ properly rejected Plaintiff's subjective complaints.

         3. Whether the ALJ properly rejected lay testimony.

         4. Whether the ALJ properly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician.

         5. Whether the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. This Court must review the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035. Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).


         I. The ALJ's non-severity finding

         Plaintiff makes several arguments in support of her contention that the ALJ erred by concluding that she did not have a severe mental impairment prior to June 30, 2015. (ECF No. 25 at 5-9.) For the following reasons, Plaintiff's contentions lack merit.

         A. Relevant 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. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 148 (1987); Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). An impairment is “not severe if it does not significantly limit [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522; see Webb, 433 F.3d at 686.

         In determining whether a claimant's mental impairment is severe, an ALJ is required to evaluate the degree of mental limitation in the following four areas: (1) understand, remember, or apply information; (2) interact with others; (3) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and (4) adapt or manage oneself. If the degree of limitation in these four areas is determined to be “mild, ” a claimant's mental impairment is generally not severe, unless there is evidence indicating a more than minimal limitation in her ability to perform basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)-(d).

         B. The ALJ's decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairment of depression caused no limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; no limitations in interacting with others; no limitations in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and a mild limitation in adapting or managing herself. (AR 20). Because he found that Plaintiff's mental impairment caused no more than minimal limitation in her ability to perform basic mental work activities, the ALJ concluded that it was not severe. (AR 18-20.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered the following evidence.

         In September 2010, Plaintiff underwent a consultative psychiatric evaluation by Stephan Simonian, M.D. (AR 19, citing AR 344-348.) Plaintiff told Dr. Simonian that she was laid off in September 2009 and was later diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes. She had recently completed treatment with Interferon, and she was “feeling tired and rather anxious.” (AR 344.) Plaintiff indicated that she had no past psychiatric history and had never seen a psychiatrist. (AR 345.) She reported a history of alcohol abuse, but had stopped drinking in January 2010. (AR 345.)

         Dr. Simonian's mental status examination revealed normal speech, thought process, affect, thought content, intellectual functioning, memory, comprehension, abstract thinking, and calculations. (AR 346-347.) Plaintiff's mood “was somewhat anxious.” (AR 346.) Dr. Simonian diagnosed Plaintiff with generalized anxiety disorder with avoidant personality features. In Dr. Simonian's opinion, Plaintiff was able to perform both simple and complex job instructions, maintain concentration and attention on a consistent basis, maintain attendance and perform work activities on a consistent basis, and perform work without special supervision. However, he opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public and moderately limited in her ability to adapt to the stresses common to a normal work environment. (AR 347-348.)

         In October 2010, State Agency medical consultant F. L. Williams, M.D., reviewed the medical evidence and opined that Plaintiff's mental impairment moderately limited her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, but did not result in limitations in any other functional ability, including her ability to interact with coworkers, supervisors, or the general public. (AR 362-365.)

         In July 2015, Plaintiff underwent a consultative psychiatric examination by Raymond Yee, M.D. Plaintiff reported feeling anxious and depressed. She told Dr. Yee that she took a “low dose” of Ativan (.5 mg) to help with anxiety. (AR 505-506, 508.) Plaintiff denied ever seeing any outpatient mental health professional and denied any psychiatric hospitalization. (AR 508.) Dr. Yee's mental status examination revealed that Plaintiff had good eye contact; a polite, cooperative, and friendly presentation; normal speech, mannerisms, and expressions; appropriate mood and affect; and no abnormalities in thought content. Plaintiff's fund of knowledge, ability to perform calculations, concentration, abstract thinking, and judgment were all intact. Plaintiff's memory was largely intact. (AR 19, 509-510.) Dr. Yee diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressive features, and alcohol abuse. (AR 510.) Dr. Yee opined that Plaintiff is able to perform simple as well as detailed, complex tasks; accept instructions from supervisors; interact with coworkers and the public; perform work activities on a consistent basis without special attention or supervision; maintain regular attendance in the workplace; and deal with the usual stress that can be encountered in a competitive workplace environment. (AR 511.)

         In August 2015, the State Agency medical consultant reviewed the record and opined that Plaintiff had no severe mental impairment. (AR 98-103.)

         On January 13, 2017, Plaintiff was placed on a psychiatric hold. Plaintiff reported feeling destitute and suicidal. She explained that her father had died, she had no income, and her stepmother wanted her out of her home. (AR 545, 603.) Thereafter, Plaintiff received psychiatric treatment from April 2017 to August 2017. (AR 532, 538, 758-829.)

         In making his Step Two finding, the ALJ afforded great weight to Dr. Yee's opinion. The ALJ reasoned that Dr. Yee's finding that Plaintiff had no mental limitations was consistent both with the record as a whole and with Dr. Yee's clinical examination results. (AR 19.) The ALJ also attributed great weight to the State Agency medical consultant's opinion that Plaintiff's mental impairment was not severe, reasoning that the opinion was consistent with the record and the consultant ...

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