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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

June 17, 2013

Katherine M. Johnson, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


FREDERICK J. MARTONE, Senior District Judge.

Before the court is plaintiff's opening brief (doc. 14), defendant's response (doc. 15), and plaintiff's reply (doc. 16).


This case arises from the denial of plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff filed her application for benefits alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2005, due to fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease and cognitive impairment, with symptoms including pain, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and memory problems. After a hearing on July 13, 2010, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a decision denying benefits. The decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

A district court may set aside a denial of benefits "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error." Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Id . (citation omitted).

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity for a reduced range of light work, and that she retains the capacity to perform her past relevant work as a health unit coordinator, classified as light, semi-skilled work. Tr. 30-31. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled and denied benefits

Plaintiff argues on appeal that the ALJ erred by (1) finding that her mental impairment is not "severe, " (2) rejecting her treating physician's opinion, and (3) rejecting her subjective complaints of disabling symptoms.


At step two of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments including fibromyalgia, hypertension, lumbar spondylosis, and degenerative disc disease. Tr. 26. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that she does not also have a "severe" mental impairment, as that term is defined in the regulations.

Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c), an impairment is "severe" if it "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." The ALJ noted that plaintiff's medical records document the existence of a mood disorder, but he concluded that it is not "severe" because it does not result in a significant limitation of functioning. Tr. 26.

Citing the findings by psychological examiner Marcel Van Eerd, Psy. D., the ALJ found that plaintiff does not have limitation in the areas of attention, concentration, memory, social interaction, or adaptation. Tr. 27 (citing Tr. 507-14). The ALJ noted that Dr. Van Eerd's opinion is consistent with that of a state agency reviewing physician, who opined that claimant's mental impairment does not cause any limitations in plaintiff's daily activities, social functioning, concentration, persistence or pace, with no episodes of decompensation. Tr. 525.

Plaintiff focuses upon discrete phrases used in Dr. Van Eerd's statement, such as "borderline, " "below average, " and "simple tasks, " in an effort to mischaracterize Dr. Van Eerd's findings. Dr. Van Eerd recognized that plaintiff has a "below average ability" with "hand-eye coordination and/or short term memory, " Tr. 510, and is in the "borderline range" for "working memory, " Tr. 511, but these findings do not dictate functional limitations. To the contrary, Dr. Van Eerd also found that plaintiff presents with general memory in the "average range, " she has a "good response" to informational questions and vocabulary with an "average response" for "verbal reasoning, verbally presented math problems, rote memory and comprehension of social situations." Tr. 510. Dr. Van Eerd found that plaintiff has an "average ability" as to nonverbal inductive reasoning, with a "very good" response in determining whole situation from observed cues." She has a "good basic ability" to understand and remember simple tasks, and she provided "quick, rapid and accurate responses" to informational questions and basic instructions. Tr. 513. Dr. Van Eerd specifically concluded that plaintiff was able to "maintain attention and concentration to meet instructions and sustain normal routines with good cognitive capacity." Tr. 513. Plaintiff again misconstrues Dr. Van Eerd's conclusions, arguing that Dr. Van Eerd "opine[d] to a maximum residual functional capacity and limits [plaintiff] to simple' tasks." Reply Brief at 3. This is not a fair characterization. Dr. Van Eerd stated that plaintiff has a "good basic ability to understand and remember simple tasks." This does not indicate that she can only perform simple tasks.

Because the ALJ reasonably found that plaintiff's mental impairment does not significantly limit her ability to perform basic work activities, we conclude that the ALJ properly determined that ...

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