United States District Court, D. Arizona
Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge
before the Court is Plaintiff Deborah Walsh's appeal of
the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her
benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the
Court remands for further proceedings.
15, 2013, Deborah Walsh applied for disability insurance
benefits and disabled widow's benefits, alleging a
disability onset date of August 21, 2010. (Tr. 21.)
Walsh's claim was denied both initially and upon
reconsideration. (Id.) She then appealed to an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.)
The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on December 17,
2014. (Tr. 47.)
evaluating whether Walsh was disabled, the ALJ undertook the
five-step sequential evaluation for determining
disability. At step one, the ALJ determined that Walsh
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her
alleged onset date. (Tr. 24.) At step two, the ALJ determined
that Walsh suffered from severe impairments of anxiety
disorder and affective disorder. (Id.) At step
three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments,
either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the
Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Tr.
then made the following determination of Walsh's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”):
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is
limited to work that is simple, routine and repetitive in
task, with only occasional and routine change in the work
environment. She should not have any in person public
interaction, but can have superficial interaction with
co-workers and minimal interaction with supervisors. However,
she can still be in [the] vicinity of others.
(Tr. 30.) The ALJ therefore found that Walsh retained the RFC
to perform her past relevant work as a warehouse worker. (Tr.
35.) In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ determined
that there were a significant number of other jobs in the
national economy that Walsh could perform despite her
limitations. (Tr. 36-37.)
October 7, 2015, the Appeals Council declined to review the
decision. (Tr. 1.) Walsh filed the complaint underlying this
action on December 4, 2015, seeking this Court's review
of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is
now fully briefed before the Court. (Docs. 17, 18, 19.)
Standard of Review
reviewing federal court need 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).
is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony,
determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities.
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). However, the Court “must consider the entire
record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a
‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'”
Id. (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498,
501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Nor may the Court “affirm the
ALJ's . . . decision based on evidence that the ALJ did
not discuss.” Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d
871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).
alleges that the ALJ erred by (a) not finding Walsh disabled
as a matter of law according to the RFC limitations; (b) not
finding that Walsh's physical ailments constituted severe
impairments; (c) giving little to no weight to the opinions
of treating physicians Dr. Fierro and Dr. Hawks; and (d)
rejecting Walsh's symptom testimony as not credible.
Application of RFC limitations
found that Walsh could perform work at all exertional levels,
with certain nonexertional limitations. She limited Walsh to
work that is “simple, routine and repetitive in task,
with only occasional and routine change in the work
environment”; additionally, she found that Walsh
“should not have any in person public interaction, but
can have superficial interaction with co-workers and minimal
interaction with supervisors.” (Tr. 30.) Walsh contends
that this mandates a finding of disability. She bases this on
the text of Social Security Ruling (“S.S.R.”)
The basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative,
unskilled work include the abilities (on a sustained basis)
to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions;
to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual
work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work
setting. A substantial loss of ability to meet any of these
basic work-related activities would severely limit the
potential occupational base. This, in turn, would justify a
finding of disability because even favorable age, education,
or work experience will not offset such a severely limited
S.S.R. 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4 (Jan. 1, 1985).
limitation to “superficial interaction with co-workers
and minimal interaction with supervisors” does not
necessarily constitute a “substantial loss of
ability” to “respond appropriately to
supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations” so
as to necessitate a finding of disability under S.S.R. 85-15.
The most natural reading of the ALJ's RFC is that Walsh
retains the ability to respond appropriately in interactions
with co-workers and supervisors, so long as those
interactions are, by the nature of a given job, superficial
and minimal, respectively.
supported by the testimony of the vocational expert. The
vocational expert testified that a hypothetical individual
with the limitations identified in the RFC could perform
Walsh's past relevant work of warehouse worker, in
addition to several other jobs in the national economy. (Tr.
62-63.) The ALJ therefore did not err in finding, based on
the RFC, that Walsh could work.
The severity of Walsh's physical impairments
found at step two of the five-step analysis that Walsh had
only two severe impairments: anxiety disorder and affective
disorder. She noted that Walsh suffered from certain physical
impairments, but found them not to be severe:
The record shows the claimant also treated for physical
impairments of headaches, gastrointestinal reflux disease,
back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. However, the objective
and clinical record does not show these conditions would
impose significant limitations and/or shown to be managed
medically. However the record fails to persuade the
undersigned that these conditions would even minimally limit
his [sic] ability to engage in basic work activity for a
basis of twelve continuous months. While the claimant sought
minimal and conservative treatment for these impairments,
treating notes failed to mention of any significant
complications, or side effects of these conditions (Exhibits
2F, 11F, 13F, 17F, 18F).
In fact, all of these impairments were being managed
medically and were amenable to proper control by adherence to
recommended medical management and medication compliance.
There is no evidence that these conditions imposed more than
minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform
basic work activities. Accordingly, these medically
determinable impairments are non-severe.
(Tr. 24-25.) Walsh challenges this with respect to her neck
pain and related headaches and upper extremity ...