United States District Court, D. Arizona
Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.
Stephanie Pollock appeals the Commissioner of Social
Security’s decision denying her application for
disability insurance benefits. For the following reasons, the
Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.
applied for disability insurance benefits in April 2012,
alleging that she became disabled in October 2011. (A.R.
133.) Pollock appeared and testified at a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in November
2013. (Id. at 30-48.) A vocational expert
(“VE”) also testified. (Id.) In February
2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying
Pollock’s application for disability insurance
benefits. (Id. at 15-24.) The Appeals Council denied
Pollock’s request for review, making the ALJ’s
decision the Commissioner’s final decision.
(Id. at 1, 10.) This appeal followed.
district court reviews only those issues raised by the party
challenging the ALJ’s decision. See Lewis v.
Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court
may set aside the Commissioner’s disability
determination only if the determination is not supported by
substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial
evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance,
and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept
as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as
a whole. Id. As a general rule, “[w]here 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.”
Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir.
2002) (citations omitted).
determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the
Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of
proof on the first four steps, but at step five, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180
F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ
determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial
gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so,
the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the
claimant has a “severe” medically determinable
physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If
not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the
claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments
meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1
to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically
found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds
to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the
claimant’s residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is
still capable of performing past relevant work. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and
the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to
the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the
claimant can perform any other work based on the
claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not
disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.
one, the ALJ determined that Pollock meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2016, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 17.) The ALJ
found at step two that Pollock’s bipolar disorder and
back pain are severe impairments, but concluded at step three
that they do not meet or medically equal the severity of an
impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404. (Id. at 17-18.) At step four, the ALJ found
that Pollock has the RFC to perform:
a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the
following nonexertional limitations: [she] has mild
limitations in her ability to understand, remember and carry
out simple instructions and to make judgments on simple work
related decisions; she has moderate limitations in her
ability to understand, remember and carry out complex
instructions and in her ability to make judgments on complex
work related decisions; she has moderate limitations in her
ability to interact appropriately with supervisors and
coworkers; and she has moderate limitations in her ability to
respond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes
in a routine work setting.
(Id. at 19.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that
Pollock is unable to perform her past relevant work as a
certified nursing assistant. (Id. at 22.) At step
five, however, after considering Pollock’s age,
education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that
there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Pollock can perform. (Id. at
23.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Pollock is not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id.
argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to articulate
limitations associated with her back pain; (2) discrediting
her subjective complaints; and (3) assigning no weight to the
opinion of nurse practitioner Susan Anderson. (Doc. 13.)
Pollock’s Back Pain
argues that the ALJ erred by not articulating limitations
associated with her back pain, which the ALJ found was a
severe impairment at step two. (Doc. 13 at 13-16.) She
contends it is unknown whether she can perform other work in
the national economy “[w]ithout knowing what
limitations the ALJ would have given for the back pain . . .
.” (Id. at 16.) The ALJ’s decision,
however, is not silent on the limitations associated with her
back pain. The ALJ found that Pollock retained the RFC to
perform work “at all exertional levels, ” and
determined that she has only nonexertional limitations. (A.R.
19.) In other words, the ALJ assessed no limitations arising
from her back pain, and Pollock incorrectly assumes that a
severe impairment identified at step two requires
corresponding exertional limitations at step four.
“[T]he step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening
device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v.
Charter, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). It is based
on medical evidence alone and reasonable doubts are resolved
in favor of the claimant. As such, a severe finding at step
two does not require the ALJ to later find work-preclusive
limitations after considering all other relevant evidence.
See Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1076 (9th Cir.
2007) (“The step two and step five determinations
require different levels of severity of limitations such that
the satisfaction of the requirements at step two does not
automatically lead to the conclusion that the claimant has
satisfied the requirements at step five.”); Taylor
v. Heckler, 605 F.Supp. 407, 412 (D. Me. ...