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Neff v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 28, 2014

Lela K. Neff, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


MICHELLE H. BURNS, Magistrate Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Lela K. Neff's appeal from the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for disability insurance benefits. After reviewing the administrative record and the arguments of the parties, the Court now issues the following ruling.


In August 2008, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Section II of the Social Security Act, claiming disability beginning July 28, 2008. (Tr. at 114-23.) After an administrative hearing held on December 28, 2010 (Tr. at 30-49), the ALJ issued a decision dated February 24, 2011, in which he found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 13-29.) Plaintiff then requested review by the Appeals Council (Tr. at 11-12), which denied her request for review in August 2012 (Tr. at 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The Court must affirm the ALJ's findings if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible legal error. See Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Marcia v. Sullivan , 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla" and "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see Reddick , 157 F.3d at 720.

In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court considers the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. See Reddick , 157 F.3d at 720. "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); see Magallanes v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the [Commissioner's] conclusion, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Reddick , 157 F.3d at 720-21.


In order to be eligible for disability or social security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an "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). An ALJ determines a claimant's eligibility for benefits by following a five-step sequential evaluation:

(1) determine whether the applicant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity";
(2) determine whether the applicant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments;
(3) determine whether the applicant's impairment equals one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges as so severe as to preclude the applicant from engaging in substantial gainful activity;
(4) if the applicant's impairment does not equal one of the listed impairments, determine whether the applicant is capable of performing his or her past relevant work;
(5) if the applicant is not capable of performing his or her past relevant work, determine whether the applicant is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience.

See Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). At the fifth stage, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work. See Penny v. Sullivan , 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993).

At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 28, 2008 - her alleged onset date. (Tr. at 18.) At step two, he found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: arthritic knees bilaterally; lumbar degenerative disc disease; cervical degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; status post cerebral vascular accident; non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; and asthma. (Tr. at 18-19.) At step three, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Commissioner's regulations. (Tr. at 19.) After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained "the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)."[1] (Tr. at 19-22.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff "has no past relevant work, " but based on her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.[2] (Tr. at 22-23.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability from July 28, 2008, through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 23.)


In her brief, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to make a function-by-function assessment of her residual functional capacity, and limiting her to a full range of sedentary work; (2) failing to consider her other various impairments (carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, anxiety and depression), contending that these other impairments should have led to additional functional limitations; (3) failing to properly consider her subjective complaints and lay witness evidence; and (4) failing to properly weigh medical source opinion evidence. Plaintiff requests that the Court remand the matter for a computation of benefits.

A. Function-by-Function Assessment

Plaintiff argues that pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-8p, the ALJ erred by failing to set forth a function-by-function assessment of her residual functional capacity resulting in legal error. Specifically, Plaintiff states that the ALJ assessed a residual functional capacity for "sedentary" work, but failed to make a specific finding as to the length of time she can sit, stand, or walk; or the weight she can lift and carry. Plaintiff states that there is no discussion as to the need or lack of need for a sit/stand option, nor is there a discussion as to handling and fingering limitations. Defendant does ...

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