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Palmer v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 30, 2013

Kenneth Fitzgerald Palmer, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

JAMES A. TEILBORG, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On December 4, 2007, Plaintiff Kenneth Fitzgerald Palmer filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income with the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), alleging that his disability began on December 1, 2007. (Record Transcript ("TR") 22). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on April 18, 2008, and upon reconsideration it was denied again on December 2, 2008. ( Id. ).

Following the denials, on January 5, 2009, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. ). Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ on April 20, 2010. ( Id. ). On June 22, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of chronic low back pain with radiculopathy, multilevel degenerative disc disease of his lumbar spine, hypertension, shortness of breath, a reading and a spelling disorder, probable borderline intellectual functioning, depression, anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and a history of opioid abuse in remission. (TR 24). The ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (TR 30). However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act because he retained the Residual Functional Capacity to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (TR 30-31).

Following the ALJ's denial of Plaintiff's claim, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Social Security Administration. (TR 16). On June 25, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR 1). The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. ).

On August 21, 2012, Plaintiff filed his Complaint with this Court for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his claim, which is the subject of this appeal. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has filed a brief (the "Brief") seeking judicial review of the ALJ's denial of her claim. (Doc. 17). In the Brief, Plaintiff argues that the Court should overturn the ALJ's decision and remand the case with instructions to award benefits because the ALJ's decision contains legal error as it lacks substantial justification to support the ALJ's conclusions. ( Id. at 39).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The Commissioner's decision to deny benefits will be overturned "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quotation omitted). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

"The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ." Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, this Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. "Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence." Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted). If there is sufficient evidence to support the Commissioner's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before this Court, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, this Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

A. Definition of Disability

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show among other things, that he is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). "The mere existence of an impairment is insufficient proof of a disability." Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 680 (9th Cir. 1993) (citing Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642-43 (9th Cir. 1982)). Disability has "a severity and durational requirement for recognition under the [Social Security] Act that accords with the remedial purpose of the Act." Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1459 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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)(1)(A). A person is "under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A).

"A claimant bears the burden of proving that an impairment is disabling." Matthews, 10 F.3d at 680 (quoting Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 849 (9th Cir. 1985)). Thus, "[t]he applicant must show that he is precluded from engaging in not only his previous work, ' but also from performing any other kind of substantial gainful work' due to such impairment." Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

B. Five-Step Evaluation Process

The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721 (describing the sequential process). A finding of "not disabled" at any step in the sequential process will end the ALJ's inquiry and the claim will be denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the ALJ at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

The five steps are as follows:

First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

Second, if the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. at § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities means the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs." Id. at § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either be expected "to result in death" or "to last for a continuous period of twelve months." Id. at § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The "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).

Third, having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment "meets or medically equals the criteria of any of the listings in the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1, subpart P of 20 CFR part 404 (appendix 1)." SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869 at *6 (July 25, 2012). If so, the claimant is found disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R.§ 404.1520(d).

When a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment under appendix 1, the ALJ will assess a claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). Id. The ALJ bases the RFC assessment on all relevant evidence in the case record. Id. The ALJ considers the effects of all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including impairments that are not severe. Id.

At steps 4 and 5, the ALJ uses the RFC assessment to determine whether the claimant is capable of doing any past relevant work (step 4) or any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy (step 5). Id. ; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If the claimant is able to do any past relevant work, the ALJ will find that he or she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant is not able to do any past relevant work or does not have such work experience, the ALJ determines whether he or she can do any other work. Id. The usual vocational considerations apply (age, education, and work experience). Id. ; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, then he is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform other work, he will be found disabled. As previously noted, the ALJ has the burden of proving the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

With regard to steps 1-5 in this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff: (1) had satisfied the first step and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 4, 2007 (TR 24); and (2) had fulfilled the second step and shown that he suffered from the following severe impairments: chronic low back pain with radiculopathy, multilevel degenerative disc disease of his lumbar spine, hypertension, shortness of breath, a reading and a spelling disorder, probable borderline intellectual functioning, depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, and a history of opioid abuse in remission. ( Id. ). With regard to the third step (3), the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in the regulations. (TR 24-26). Therefore, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC and found he had the capacity to perform light unskilled work as it is defined by the regulations at the light exertional level but with some specific restrictions. (TR 26, 29). As a result of this analysis, the ALJ found at the fourth step (4) that Plaintiff is "unable to perform any of his past relevant work" as a bus driver, transport driver, day laborer, or construction laborer. (TR 30). At the last step (5), however, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and ...


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