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Bagent v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 3, 2014

Robin Bagent, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

G. MURRAY SNOW, District Judge.

Pending before this Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Robin Bagent, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 11.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms that decision.

BACKGROUND

Bagent applied for disability insurance benefits in February 2009, alleging a disability onset of August 2008 due to several conditions including anxiety, depression, hepatitis C, and arthritis. (R. at 257-59, 290.)

An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on the matter in July 2011 and denied Bagent's claim in August 2011. ( Id. at 52-96, 27-34.) In evaluating whether Bagent was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] ( Id. at 27-34.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Bagent had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 29.) At step two, the ALJ determined that although Bagent suffered from several medically determinable impairments, she did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments because her impairments did not significantly limit her ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutives months. ( Id. at 29-34.)

The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. ( Id. at 1-6.) Plaintiff filed the complaint underlying this action on July 26, 2013, seeking a review of benefits.[2] (Doc. 1.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Docs. 11-13.)

DISCUSSION

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A reviewing federal court will only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. (quotation omitted). "Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted).

However, the ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). "When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion." Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because "[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). The Court "may not reweigh the evidence, substitute our own judgment for the Secretary's, or give vent to feelings of compassion." Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 644-45 (9th Cir. 1987) (internal citation omitted).

II. ANALYSIS

Bagent's claim was denied at the second step and the sole issue on appeal is whether the ALJ committed reversible error in determining that Bagent did not have a severe impairment. "[A]t the second step of [the] sequential evaluation it must be determined whether medical evidence establishes an impairment or combination of impairments of such severity' as to be the basis of a finding of inability to engage in any [substantial gainful employment]." S.S.R. 85-28 (1985). A "severe" impairment is "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The "ability to do basic work activities, " in turn, is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b); 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b). "An impairment is not severe if it is merely a slight abnormality (or combination of slight abnormalities) that has no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities." Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting S.S.R. 96-3p (July 2, 1996)).

"[T]he step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims, " Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987)), and "is to do no more than allow the [Social Security Administration] to deny benefits summarily to those applicants with impairments of a minimal nature which could never prevent a person from working, " S.S.R. 85-28 (1985) (internal quotation omitted). Therefore, "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.'" Webb, 433 F.3d at 687 (quoting S.S.R. 85-28). "[I]f an adjudicator is unable to determine clearly the effect of an impairment or combination of impairments on the individual's ability to do basic work activities, the sequential evaluation should not end with the not severe evaluation step.'" Id. (quoting S.S.R. 85-28). Thus, the Court's task in reviewing a denial of benefits at step two is to "determine whether the 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." Id.

In this case, the ALJ determined that Bagent had several medically diagnosed conditions but determined that alone or in combination they did not result in a severe disability. Bagent disagrees. She first argues that the ALJ should have afforded more weight to her own testimony. Second she argues that the ALJ should have afforded more weight to the medical opinion testimony of Dr. Sayegh, and the other opinion testimony of Ms. Serrato and the vocational expert. ...


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