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Gonzalez v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 19, 2014

Stephanie Veronica Gonzalez, Plaintiff,
Social Security Administration Commissioner, Defendant.


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 XVI application for supplemental security income based on disability.


A. Procedural Background

Plaintiff Stephanie Veronica Gonzalez filed a Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income benefits on March 25, 2009 alleging disability beginning July 1, 2008. (TR 19, 36, 120). Plaintiff was 26 years old on March 25, 2009 and listed her conditions on her application as depression, ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD. ( See TR 120, 160). The claim was denied on May 11, 2009 and on October 29, 2009 upon reconsideration. (TR 19). A hearing was held on February 7, 2011 before an ALJ, who issued an unfavorable decision on March 24, 2001. (TR 19, 27). On August 28, 2012, after reviewing additional evidence, the Appeals Council ("AC") denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (TR 1-3).

On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed her Complaint for Judicial Review of the Administrative Determination of Claim (Doc. 1), which is the subject of this appeal. Plaintiff argues that the Court should vacate the Administrative Law Decision because: (1) the ALJ erred in rejecting the treating physicians' opinions without clear and convincing reasons for doing so ( Id. at 13); (2) the testimony of Dr. Geary, [1] when considered on review, undermines the substantial evidence the ALJ based his findings on (Doc. 16 at 16); (3) the ALJ erred by rejecting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony without stating clear and convincing reasons ( Id. at 21); and (4) the ALJ erred in not discussing the lay witness evidence ( Id. at 24).


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). 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, the 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 the Court, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the 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, Plaintiff must show, among other things, that she is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). The 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.

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). Plaintiff 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 Plaintiff is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, Plaintiff is not disabled.

2. If Plaintiff is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether Plaintiff 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. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities means the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs." Id. § 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. § 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, Plaintiff is found disabled without considering Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(d).

4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, Plaintiff can still perform "past relevant work." Id. § 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. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of ...

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