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Lapointe v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 29, 2017

Valerie Blanch Lapointe, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Valerie Lapointe applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits in March 2013, alleging disability beginning April 16, 2012. After state agency denials, Lapointe appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A vocational expert also was present and testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Lapointe is 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 Lapointe's request for review. Lapointe now seeks judicial review of that decision. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         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. 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. 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. 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. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Lapointe 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. 19.) The ALJ found at step two that Lapointe has no severe mental impairments, but that her degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, status post shoulder surgery, and obesity are severe physical impairments. The ALJ therefore proceeded to step three and found that Lapointe's impairments 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 19-22.) At step four, the ALJ found that Lapointe has the RFC to perform “medium work . . . except [she] can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and crawl. She can occasionally engage in overhead reaching with the right upper extremity.” (Id. at 23.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Lapointe is capable of performing past relevant work as a payroll clerk, mortgage loan clerk, and eligibility worker. (Id. at 27.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Lapointe is not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. (Id. at 27-28.)

         Lapointe contends that the ALJ erred at step two by not finding the existence of severe mental impairments. Lapointe argues that, in doing so, the ALJ improperly assigned greater weight to the opinions of non-examining state agency reviewers than to her mental health treatment providers and discounted her symptom testimony. (Doc. 11.)

         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

         At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. “[T]he step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” within the meaning of the SSA if it “significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” and is “expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & (c). Basic work activities include physical functions, such as walking, standing, and seeing, as well as cognitive or social functions, such as understanding and carrying out simple tasks, using judgment, responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations, and dealing with changes in a routine work setting. SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *3. “An impairment or combination of impairments can be found ‘not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has ‘no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.'” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290 (quoting SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *3).

         Here, the ALJ found that Lapointe's anxiety and affective disorder “are non-severe impairments because they do no result in more than mild limitations of functioning. Specifically, there are no restrictions of activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace.” (A.R. 20.) The ALJ explained her finding as follows:

[Lapointe] has never received inpatient psychiatric care of extended duration. Yet, [she] did receive formal care, as she was followed by a psychiatrist and psychotherapist beginning in 2012. Although [Lapointe] complained of some depressed mood, treating notes reveal [she] was under significant stress associated with feeling persecuted at her job and her son's severe emotional chemical dependency issues. However, by March 2013, [her] mood was fairly stable. Notes from March 2014 reflect [Lapointe's] symptoms were in remission. By August 2014, [she] reported feeling better with no adverse side effects. [Lapointe] was typically seen every 8 weeks for medication management. Mental status examinations found [Lapointe] alert and oriented with good grooming and hygiene, mildly depressed and irritated to good mood, restricted to euthymic affect, logical thoughts, good memory, and adequate concentration, judgment, and insight. Review of the record reveals [Lapointe] performed activities of daily living independently and related to others well. There is thus no evidence of more than mild limitations in this regard because [Lapointe] is capable of performing numerous adaptive activities independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis despite her mental impairments. It was noted further that she is still capable of maintaining interaction with individuals in a variety of situations independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis despite her mental impairments. As to her concentration, persistence and pace, she is no more than mildly limited in this area because [she] still has the ability to sustain focused attention and concentration sufficiently long enough to permit the timely and appropriate completion of tasks commonly found in work settings despite her mental impairments. [Lapointe] was observed throughout the hearing and did not manifest any difficulty concentrating during the hearing. During the time when [she] was being questioned, [Lapointe] appeared to process the questions without difficulty, and to respond to the questions appropriately and without delay. Moreover, as noted above, [Lapointe] had good mini mental status examinations with her treating sources. For these reasons, she is no more than mildly limited due to her mental impairments.

(Id.)

         In making her step two determination, the ALJ also considered the opinions of Lapointe's mental health treatment providers, Licensed Professional Counselor Carol Bettino and psychiatrist Dr. Katherine Cheeves, but assigned them little weight. (Id. at 21.) The ALJ instead assigned great weight to the assessments of non-examining state agency reviewers Drs. Adrianne Galluci and Thomas VanHoose, both of whom reviewed ...


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