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Walsh v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 27, 2017

Deborah Walsh, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending 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.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 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.)

         In evaluating whether Walsh was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] 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. 28-30.)

         The ALJ then made the following determination of Walsh's residual functional capacity (“RFC”):[2]

[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.)

         On 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.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         A 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).

         The ALJ 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).

         II. Analysis

         Walsh 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.

         A. Application of RFC limitations

         The ALJ 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.[3] She bases this on the text of Social Security Ruling (“S.S.R.”) 85-15:[4]

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 occupational base.

S.S.R. 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4 (Jan. 1, 1985).

         But a 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.

         This is 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.

         B. The severity of Walsh's physical impairments

         The ALJ 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 ...


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