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Trembulak v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 10, 2014

Gwendolyn Trembulak, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") denial of Plaintiff's Title II application for disability insurance benefits.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 3, 2010, Plaintiff Gwendolyn Trembulak filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), alleging that her disability began on September 1, 2005. (Administrative Record ("AR") 23). The Commissioner initially denied Plaintiff's claim on September 22, 2010, and again denied it upon reconsideration on March 16, 2011. ( Id. ).

Following the denials, on March 22, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. ). Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ on April 16, 2012. ( Id. ). At the hearing, Plaintiff moved to amend the alleged onset date to December 20, 2005; the ALJ granted the motion. ( Id. ). On June 20, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was last insured through June 30, 2009 (hereinafter "the date last insured") and that, during the relevant time period, Plaintiff suffered from five medically determinable impairments: (1) cerebrovascular disease; (2) status post respiratory failure secondary to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia; (3) low back pain; (4) hypertension; and (5) depression. (AR 23, 25). However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments because, through the date last insured, Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, did not significantly limit Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months. (AR 26). Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (AR 29).

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. (AR 8). On September 13, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1). The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. ).

On November 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed her Complaint with this Court for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim, which is the subject of this appeal. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has filed an opening brief (the "Brief") seeking judicial review of the ALJ's denial of her claim. (Doc. 15). 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 citations to specific and legitimate evidence to support the ALJ's conclusions and because the ALJ's conclusions are not supported by substantial evidence of record. ( Id. at 2, 22).

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.

"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). 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 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) (2012). 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 [s]he is precluded from engaging in not only h[er] 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 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. § 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:

1. 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.

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. § 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).

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 § 404.1520(a) (4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Id. at § 404.1520(d).

4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To make this determination, the ALJ compares its "residual functional capacity assessment... with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work." Id. at § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of work the claimant previously did, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the final step.

5. At the final step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant "can make an adjustment to other work" that exists in the national economy. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ considers the claimant's residual functional capacity, together with vocational factors (age, education, and work experience). Id. at § 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.

In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff: (1) had satisfied the first step by not engaging in substantial gainful activity during the period between her amended onset date and her date of last insured (December 20, 2005 through June 30, 2009) (AR 25); but (2) failed to satisfy the second step by failing to show that she suffered from severe medically determinable impairments[1] during the relevant time ( id. ). ...


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