Linda L. McKinzie, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
JAMES A. TEILBORG, District Judge.
Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") denial of Plaintiff's Title XVI application for supplemental security income based on disability.
I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff Linda McKinzie previously applied for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on May 28, 2004. An unfavorable decision was ultimately issued by an ALJ on September 18, 2006 (Record Transcript ("TR") 68-78). Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council and review was denied. (TR 76).
On August 11, 2008, Plaintiff filed another application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging that her disability began August 1, 2008. (TR 18). Plaintiff was 51 years old on August 11, 2008 and listed her illnesses, injuries, and conditions on her application as neuropathy, nerve damage, carpal tunnel, and hearing loss. (TR 158). Plaintiff's applications were initially denied. (TR 18). On reconsideration, a hearing was held on October 19, 2009 before an ALJ, who issued an unfavorable decision on December 22, 2010. (TR 18-27). On January 26, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's claim. (TR 1-3). As a result, the ALJ's decision of December 20, 2010 became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security in Plaintiff's case. ( Id. ).
On March 20, 2012, Plaintiff filed her Complaint for Judicial Review of the Administrative Determination of her claim with this Court. (Doc. 1).
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) (internal quotation omitted). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Charter, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id.
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 administrative law judge's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the administrative law judge's conclusions. Id. If there is sufficient evidence to support the Commissioner's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. Id. Additionally, the administrative law judge 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 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." Id. at § 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).
B. Five-Step Evaluation Process
The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir.1998) (describing the sequential process). A finding of "not disabled" at any step in the sequential process will end the ALJ's inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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:
1. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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 § 416.920(c). Basic work activities means the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs." Id. at § 416.921(b). Further, the impairment must either be expected "to result in death" or "to last for a continuous period of twelve months." Id. at § 416.909 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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).
3. Having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment "meets or equals" one of the impairments specifically listed in the regulations. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without considering the ...