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Kobyluck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 2, 2017

Jamie Lynne Kobyluck, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Jamie Lynne Kobyluck's appeal of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny her benefits, (Doc. 2). For the following reasons, the Court remands for further proceedings.


         On January 2, 2014, Mrs. Kobyluck filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of July 8, 2012. (Tr. 23.) Her claim was initially denied on July 21, 2014 and it was denied again upon reconsideration on January 16, 2015. (Id.) Mrs. Kobyluck then filed a written request for a hearing and she testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Earl C. Cates, Jr. (Id.) On November 30, 2015 the ALJ issued a decision finding Mrs. Kobyluck not disabled. (Tr. 32.)

         In evaluating whether Mrs. Kobyluck was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 23-24.) At step one, the ALJ found that Mrs. Kobyluck had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 8, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Mrs. Kobyluck suffered from multiple sclerosis (“MS”) and type II diabetes, both of which are severe impairments. (Tr. 25.) However, at the same step, the ALJ also determined that the claimant's memory impairment, that is related to her MS, and her alleged neuropathy were non-severe ailments. The ALJ made this determination at step two even though the medical records determined that the claimant did suffer from memory impairment that resulted from her MS and that she did have neuropathy secondary to her diabetes. (Tr. 25-28.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Mrs. Kobyluck's severe impairments equaled or met the severity of any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Id.)

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Mrs. Kobyluck's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] concluding that Mrs. Kobyluck could “perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she must avoid heights, scaffolding, ladders, and temperature extremes based on multiple sclerosis.” (Tr. 28.)

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-3.) Mrs. Kobyluck filed the complaint underlying this action on June 20, 2016, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 2.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Docs. 21, 22.)


         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

         A. The ALJ Erred in Finding Kobyluck's Neurocognitive Impairments to be Non-Severe

         “At step two, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his ability to do basic work activities.” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). This step is generally seen as a “de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater,80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). Thus, an ALJ should only dismiss claims at this step “when his conclusion is ‘clearly established by medical evidence.'” Webb, 433 F.3d at 687 (quoting S.S.R. 85-28). Furthermore, during this stage, “the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments on her ability to function, without regard to whether each alone was sufficiently severe.” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290. At step two, the ALJ determined that the claimant had two severe ...

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