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Lacrosse v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 26, 2017

Gail Marie LaCrosse, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOUGLAS L. RAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Gail Marie LaCrosse applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits in May 2014, alleging that she became disabled as of August 15, 2012 due to depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). After state agency denials, LaCrosse appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A vocational expert (“VE”) also was present and testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that LaCrosse was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision after the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied LaCrosse's request for review. LaCrosse now seeks judicial review of that decision. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration is affirmed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” 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). The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (internal quotations and citation omitted). Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the SSA, 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. 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. 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. 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. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she 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. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ determined that LaCrosse meets the insured status requirements of the SSA through December 31, 2017, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 14.) The ALJ found at step two that LaCrosse's degenerative disc disease is a severe impairment, but concluded at step three that it does 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 14-15.) At step four, the ALJ found that LaCrosse has the RFC to perform:

Medium work . . . except the claimant is able to sit for 7-8 hours out of an eight-hour day; and stand and/or walk for 7-8 hours out of an eight-hour day. She is able to lift and/or carry twenty-five pounds frequently, and fifty pounds occasionally. Her ability to push and/or pull corresponds to her lifting and carrying abilities. She can frequently twist, stoop (bend), crouch/squat, climb ladders or climb stairs, ramps or stepstools. She cannot work in a fast-paced production environment. She is able to attend and concentrate in two-hour blocks of times throughout an eight-hour workday with the two customary ten to fifteen minute breaks and the customary thirty to sixty minute lunch period.

(Id. at 16 (footnote omitted).) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that LaCrosse is capable of performing past relevant work as an office nurse and as a prison pre-release coordinator. (Id. at 19.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that LaCrosse is not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. (Id. at 20.)

         On appeal, LaCrosse argues that the ALJ erred at step two by failing to perform the agency's psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) assessment of her mental impairments, and at step four by relying on jobs that do not meet the definition of past relevant work. (Doc. 16 at 2.) The Court disagrees.

         I. Necessity of PRT Analysis

         When determining whether a claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, agency regulations require the ALJ to follow the PRT. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a; Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 725 (9th Cir. 2011).

Specifically, the reviewer must determine whether an applicant has a medically determinable mental impairment, rate the degree of functional limitation for four functional areas, determine the severity of the mental impairment (in part based on the degree of functional limitation), and then, if the impairment is severe, proceed to step three of the disability analysis to determine if the impairment meets or equals a specific listed mental disorder.

Keyser, 648 F.3d at 725 (citations omitted). “An ALJ's failure to comply with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a is not harmless if the claimant has a ‘colorable claim of mental impairment.'” Id. at 726 (quoting Gutierrez v. Apfel, 199 F.3d 1048, 1051 (9th Cir. 2000)). A claim is colorable if it is not “wholly insubstantial, ...


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