Clark v. Commissioner Social Security Administration
Opinion and Order: For the reasons stated, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED. (See attached PDF for complete details). Signed on 9/15/2022 by Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke. (jkm)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
GREGORY C., 1
Case No. 3:20-cv-01901-CL
OPINION AND ORDER
KILOLO KIJAKAZI, Commissioner of
CLARKE, U.S. Magistrate Judge.
Gregory C. ("Plaintiff') brings this appeal challenging the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration's ("Commissioner") denial of his application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction to hear this
appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates the review provisions of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
In the interest of privacy, this opinion uses only the first name and the initial of the last
name of the non-governmental party in this case. Where applicable, this opinion uses the same
designation for a non-governmental party's immediate family member.
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STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court may set aside a denial of benefits only if the Commissioner's findings
are "'not supported by substantial evidence or [are] based on legal error."' Bray v. Comm 'r Soc.
Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d
880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence is defined as "'more than a mere scintilla [of
evidence] but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion."' Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shala/a, 53 F.3d 1035,
1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).
The district court '.'cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision 'simply by isolating a
specific quantum of supporting evidence."' Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th
Cir. 2001) (quoting Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). Instead, the district
court must consider the entire record, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from
the Commissioner's conclusions. Id. Where the record as a whole can support either a grant or a
denial of Social Security benefits, the district court '"may not substitute [its] judgment for the
[Commissioner's]."' Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222 (quoting Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152
(9th Cir. 2007)).
Plaintiff was born in 1965 and was 48 on his alleged onset date of October 5, 2013. Tr.
208. He has over 10 years of experience as a machinist for an auto body company. Tr. 41-42,
222-23. Plaintiff filed his application for DIB on June 7, 2018, alleging disability beginning
October 5, 2013. Tr. 208-09. Plaintiffs claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and
he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 102-04, 111-13. An
administrative hearing was held on February 12, 2020. Tr. 33-59. After the hearing, ALJ Rosa
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issued a written opinion dated February 27, 2020, denying Plaintiffs claim for benefits. Tr. 1327. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs subsequent request for review, making the ALJ' s
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-5. This appeal followed. 2
THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS
A claimant is considered disabled if he or she is unable to "engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment
which ... has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(l)(A). "Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential
process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act." Keyser v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). Those
five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a
listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant can return to any past relevant work; and (5) whether
the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. Id at 724-25. The claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps.
Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). If the claimant fails to meet the
burden at any of those steps, the claimant is not disabled. Id.; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five of the sequential analysis, where
the Commissioner must show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy, "taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636. (ECF 6).
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capacity, age, education, and work experience." Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. If the Commissioner
fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954 (citations
THE ALJ'S DECISION
The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether
Plaintiff was disabled. Tr. 13-27. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since his initial alleged onset date of October 5, 2013. Tr. 15. At
step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar I
disorder, unspecified personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, cannabis use disorder,
and asthma. Tr. 15.
At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or equals a Listing. Tr. 16-17.
The ALJ then determined Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"), finding that
Plaintiff retained the. ability to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the
[Plaintiff] can do simple, routine, repetitive tasks with a reasoning level of 1-2, no public
contact, occasional superficial contact with a small group of coworkers, and no
teamwork; he should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, gases, dusts, odors, and other
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not capable of performing his relevant
work. Tr. 25-26, 52-53. At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perfonnjobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including laundry worker, industrial
cleaner, and routing clerk. Tr. 26. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.
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Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) improperly evaluating the medical opinion
evidence; and (2) failing to find, at step three, that Plaintiffs combined impairments met or
equaled a listed impairment.
MEDICAL OPINION EVIDENCE
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion of treating
counselor Helen Sayas, MSW, QMHP. An ALJ's decision to discredit any medical opinion must
be supported by substantial evidence. Woods v. Kijakazi, 32 F.4th 785, 787 (9th Cir. 2022). "An
ALJ can satisfy the 'substantial evidence' requirement by 'setting out a detailed and thorough
summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and
making findings."' Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddickv.
Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)). Merely stating conclusions is insufficient: "The ALJ
must do more than state conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why
they, rather than the doctors', are correct." Id. "[A]n ALJ errs when he rejects a medical opinion
or assigns it little weight while doing nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without
explanation that another medical opinion is more persuasive, or criticizing it with boilerplate
language that fails to offer a substantive basis for his conclusion." Id. at 1012-13 (citing Nguyen
v. Chafer, 100 F.3d 1462, 1464 (9th Cir. 1996)).
Ms. Sayas completed a functional assessment for Plaintiff on September 24, 2019. Tr.
1514-19. Ms. Sayas opined that Plaintiff experienced a reduction in symptoms due to ongoing
medical treatment, therapy, and psychosocial supports. Tr. 1515. Ms. Sayas opined that plaintiff
had minimal capacity to adapt to changes or demands that are not already part of his daily life
and assessed marked limitations in work-related functioning. Id She also opined that Plaintiff
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has high anxiety in new setting and with new people, that he is "easily overwhelmed and needs
time to regulate his emotions," and that he has a short attention span. Tr. 1516.
The ALJ found Ms. Sayas's opinion unpersuasive to the extent that it conflicted with the
RFC. Tr. 25. The ALJ first noted that Ms. Sayas's findings were unsupported by her own
treatment notes. Tr. 25. The ALJ is required to assess the persuasiveness of a medical opinion
based on whether the opinion is supported by objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R.
404.1520c(c)(l). Here, Ms. Sayas's treatment notes stated that Plaintiff had family support and
coping skills and needed weekly check-ins only "based on his [Psychiatric Services Review
Board] requirements" after Plaintiff was released from jail. Tr. 1032. Plaintiff showed
appropriate affect and appreciation and stated that he enjoyed living with his son. Tr. 1349. On
this record, the ALJ reasonably concluded that Ms. Sayas's notes suggested that Plaintiffs
regimen of meetings and check-ins was not warranted by his actual functional limitations.
Further, the ALJ reasonably concluded that Ms. Sayas's rather benign treatment noted regarding
Plaintiffs affect, manner, and coping skills did not support her conclusions that Plaintiff suffered
marked impairments that were reduced only with ongoing medical treatment, therapy, and
psychosocial supports. Tr. 1515.
The ALJ next found that Ms. Sayas's opinion was contradicted by other evidence in the
record, including Plaintiffs ability to maintain his own home. Tr. 25. A medical opinion is
generally less persuasive when it is not consistent with other evidence in the record. 20 C.F .R. §
404.1520c(c)(2). Here, the record revealed that Plaintiff was able to maintain his home and
social relationships; kept his home "very tidy and well kept;" participated in activities such as
going to see his son perform in an orchestra; tolerated social situations with minimal
breakthrough anxiety; moved in with his son; and sold his home to buy a new one with his wife.
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Tr. 1106, 1123, 1236, 1245, 1348. This evidence reasonably contradicted Ms. Sayas's opinion
that Plaintiff had minimal capacity to adapt to changes or demands that are not already part of his
daily life and marked limitations in work-related functioning. Tr. 1515. On this record, the ALJ's
finding that Ms. Sayas's opinion was unpersuasive was rational and based on substantial
STEP THREE FINDINGS
Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred because he failed at step three to find Plaintiff
meets listing 12.04. At step three, the ALJ is required to determine whether a claimant's
combined impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724. The Listing
requirements are set "at a higher level of severity than the statutory standard" for disability under
the Act." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). Specifically, the Listings "define
impairments that would prevent an adult, regardless of his age, education, or work experience,
from performing any gainful activity, not just 'substantial gainful activity."' Id. To show that he
meets a Listing, Plaintiff was required to show that he meets all the criteria for the listed
To show that he satisfies Listing 12.04, Plaintiff was required to establish a depressive or
bipolar disorder that is "serious and persistent." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appx. 1, 12.04C. An
impairment is "persistent" if it lasts for at least two years, and "serious" if there is evidence of
(1) Medical treatment, mental health therapy, psychosocial support(s), or a highly
structured setting(s) that is ongoing and that diminishes the symptoms and signs of [the
claimant's] mental disorder[ ... ] and (2) Marginal adjustment, that is, [the claimant has]
minimal capacity to adapt to changes in [his] environment or to demands that are not
already part of [his] daily life[ ... ].
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Id. Here, Plaintiff testified that he lives alone in a hous~ owned by his father. Tr. 39. Plaintiff
was required to attend 20 hours of meeting per week with various mental health support groups
as a condition of his supervision set by the Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB). Tr. 4344. Plaintiff was required to meet with a case manager every other week, have home inspections
once per week, and go to a psychiatric treatment provider every six weeks. Tr. 44. Plaintiff
prepared his own meals, did household chores, rode the bus, took medications without
assistance, traveled to his appointments on his own, and occasionally socialized. Tr. 45-49.
Plaintiff argues that this constitutes a "highly structured setting" and that Plaintiff had minimal
capacity to adapt to changes outside the prescribed routine of the PSRB. ECT 19 at 7-9.
The Court disagrees. The Regulations provide examples of highly structured settings that
include living in a hospital or day treatment program, or participating in a sheltered work
program. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appx. 1, 12.00D(l). Here, Plaintiffs daily routines do not
rise to the level of a highly structured setting. Further, there is evidence that Plaintiff was able to
adapt to significant life changes, including participating in activities such as attending an
orchestra performance and tolerating social situations; moving in with his son; and selling his
home to buy a new one with his wife. Tr. 1106, 1123, 1236, 1348. On this record, Plaintiff has
not met his burden to establish a depressive or bipolar disorder that is "serious and persistent"
under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appx. I, 12.04C. The ALJ's finding at step three that Plaintiff
did not meet a Listing was therefore not error.
For the reasons stated, the Conunissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this i :$ day of September, 2022.
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United States Magistrate Judge
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