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Kimbell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 3, 2019

Sarah Louise Kimbell, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Sarah Kimbell's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 13, Pl. Br.), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 14, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 15, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 9, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision (R. at 14-34) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-8).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on September 18, 2014 for a period of disability beginning on March 11, 2010. (R. at 17.) Her claim was denied initially on January 7, 2015, and upon reconsideration on April 7, 2015. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ for a hearing regarding her claim. (R. at 17.) On November 24, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim, and on September 26, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1, 14.)

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. Upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following severe impairments: migraines, fibromyalgia, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. (R. at 20.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has two nonsevere impairments: anxiety and a cognitive disorder. (R. at 20.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 26.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. at 22.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “push, pull, lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and lift and carry 10 pounds frequently. She can sit, stand and walk for six hours of an eight-hour day, and can handle items frequently with her right hand. She is limited to frequent right fingering, handling and gripping. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and she can never work at unprotected heights, in dusts, odors, fumes and pulmonary irritants. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperature changes for either cold or heat.” (R. at 22.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform her “past relevant work as a physician assistant, clinical instructor, office manager, or a medical assistant.” (R. at 26.)


         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. Generally, “[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) (citations omitted).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Act, 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 the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently 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. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled, and the inquiry ends. Id. 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. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled, and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for the Court's consideration. (Pl. Br. at 1.) First Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly found that Plaintiff's mental impairments are nonsevere. (R. at 14.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of (1) Dr. Gentry, Plaintiff's treating physician, (2) Richard Randall, P.T., and (3) Jeff Tucker, therapist. (Pl. Br. at 18-22.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ presented an incomplete hypothetical to the vocational expert. (Pl. Br. at 23.) The Court disagrees with each of Plaintiff's arguments.

         A. The ALJ did not err by finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments- anxiety and a cognitive disorder-are nonsevere.

         An ALJ can find that an impairment or combination of impairments is nonsevere only if it has “no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). Only one severe impairment is required for a claimant to survive the step-two severe impairment analysis. Id. The ALJ must consider all a claimant's medically determinable impairments when calculating her RFC, regardless of whether they are severe. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. Consequently, an ALJ's errant failure to treat an impairment as severe is typically harmless if the claimant survives step-two and the ALJ considers all the claimant's medical impairments, severe or otherwise. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 682 (9th Cir. 2005). An ALJ's step-two determination will be upheld when substantial evidence supports her finding that a claimant's impairment is nonsevere. Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005).

         There are unique considerations when a claimant alleges that a mental impairment is severe. The ALJ rates a claimant's degree of functional limitation in four broad functional areas to determine whether her mental impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c). The functional areas are: (1) understand, remember, or apply information; (2) interact with others; (3) concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and (4) adapt or manage oneself. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ rates the level of impairment on a five-point scale: none, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). If the ALJ finds that the ...

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