Paana v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.

Decision Date16 March 2023
Docket Number2:21-CV-0505-DMC
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of California


Plaintiff who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, ECF Nos. 5 and 8, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); see also ECF No. 10 (minute order assigning case to Magistrate Judge). Pending before the Court are the parties' briefs on the merits, ECF Nos. 21 and 24.

The Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it is: (1) based on proper legal standards and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). It is “. . . such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971). The record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, must be considered and weighed. See Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986); Jones v. Heckler 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The Court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. See Hammock v Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a particular finding, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. See Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987). Therefore, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed, see Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, see Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

For the reasons discussed below, the matter will be remanded for further proceedings.


To achieve uniformity of decisions, the Commissioner employs a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f). The sequential evaluation proceeds as follows:

Step 1 Determination whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is presumed not disabled and the claim is denied; Step 2 If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, determination whether the claimant has a severe impairment; if not, the claimant is presumed not disabled and the claim is denied;
Step 3 If the claimant has one or more severe impairments, determination whether any such severe impairment meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations; if the claimant has such an impairment, the claimant is presumed disabled and the claim is granted;
Step 4 If the claimant's impairment is not listed in the regulations, determination whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past work in light of the claimant's residual functional capacity; if not, the claimant is presumed not disabled and the claim is denied;
Step 5 If the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past work, determination whether, in light of the claimant's residual functional capacity, the claimant can engage in other types of substantial gainful work that exist in the national economy; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied.

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f).

To qualify for benefits, the claimant must establish the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or can be expected to last, a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The claimant must provide evidence of a physical or mental impairment of such severity the claimant is unable to engage in previous work and cannot, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. See Quang Van Han v. Bower, 882 F.2d 1453, 1456 (9th Cir. 1989). The claimant has the initial burden of proving the existence of a disability. See Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990).

The claimant establishes a prima facie case by showing that a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in previous work. See Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1452 (9th Cir. 1984); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f). If the claimant establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform other work existing in the national economy. See Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1340 (9th Cir. 1988); Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); Hammock v. Bowen, 867 F.2d 1209, 1212-1213 (9th Cir. 1989).


Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on October 23, 2017. See CAR 16.[1] In the application, Plaintiff claims disability began on October 3, 2017. See id. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. Following denial of reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on August 11, 2020, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Steve Lynch. In a September 4, 2020, decision, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff is not disabled based on the following relevant findings:

1. Through the date last insured - December 31, 2018 - the claimant had the following severe impairment(s): lumbar degenerative disk disease, degenerative joint disease, and obesity;
2. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in the regulations;
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following residual functional capacity: to perform light work except no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, no kneeling or crawling, occasional stooping, crouching, climbing stairs and ramps. He should avoid hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery;
4. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and vocational expert testimony, through the date last insured, the claimant had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferable to other occupations existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

See id. at 19-31.

After the Appeals Council declined review on January 15, 2021, this appeal followed.


Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ erred at Step 2 in concluding that Plaintiff's mental impairment is non-severe; (2) the ALJ erred at Step 4 in evaluating Plaintiffs subjective statements and testimony; (3) the ALJ erred by failing to adequately consider Plaintiffs obesity; and (4) because of these errors, the ALJ erred at Step 5 in evaluating Plaintiff's ability to perform other work.

A. Evaluation of Plaintiff's Mental Impairment

To qualify for benefits, the plaintiff must have an impairment severe enough to significantly limit the physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).[2] In determining whether a claimant's alleged impairment is sufficiently severe to limit the ability to work, the Commissioner must consider the combined effect of all impairments on the ability to function, without regard to whether each impairment alone would be sufficiently severe. See Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289-90 (9th Cir. 1996); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523 and 416.923. An impairment, or combination of impairments, can only be found to be non-severe if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 85-28; see also Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988) (adopting SSR 85-28). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing the severity of the impairment by providing medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 416.908. The plaintiff's own statement of symptoms alone is insufficient. See id.

Where, as here, there is a colorable claim of mental impairment, the regulations require the ALJ to follow a special procedure. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(a), 416.920a(a). The ALJ is required to record pertinent findings and rate the degree of functional loss. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b), 416.920a(b).

At Step 2, the ALJ evaluated the severity of Plaintiff's impairments. See CAR 20-21. In doing so, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's mental impairments are not severe. As to the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ stated:

The claimant's medically determinable mental impairments of depression and anxiety, considered singly and in combination, did not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and were therefore non-severe. In making this finding, the undersigned has considered the broad functional areas of mental functioning set out in the disability regulations for evaluating mental disorders and in the Listing of Impairments (20 CFR, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1). These

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