United States District Court, D. Arizona
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 application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.
I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In February of 2009, Plaintiff Gina Samuels filed Title II and Title XVI applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits alleging her disability began on February 19, 2009. (TR 137-150). Plaintiff claims disability due to fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, and depression. (TR 22; Doc. 12). Both applications were denied, initially on April 2, 2009, and upon reconsideration on July 23, 2009. (TR 73-79; 80-86). On March 14, 2011, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ who issued an unfavorable decision on March 24, 2011. (TR 20, 30). On June 7, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's claim. (TR 1-3).
On August 6, 2012, Plaintiff filed her Complaint for Judicial Review of the Administrative Determination of her claim. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff argues that the Court should vacate the Administrative Law Decision because: (1) the ALJ failed to properly weigh reported symptoms; (2) the ALJ failed to properly weigh medical source opinion; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly examine vocational expert ("VE") testimony. (Doc. 12 at 13-27).
A. Standard of Review
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. 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.
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. Id. If there is sufficient evidence to support the Commissioner's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. Id. Additionally, 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).
B. Definition of Disability
To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show, among other things, that she 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is "under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).
C. 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. 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. § 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. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(d).
4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To make this determination, the ALJ compares its "Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") 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 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. § 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. § 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 ...