United States District Court, D. Arizona
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Arthur William Gustafson seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied him disability insurance benefits under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
A. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born in December 1954. He earned a B.S. degree in construction management and worked as a carpenter and in construction management. He had a lower lumbar laminectomy in 1982 and a cervical discectomy and fusion in 1999, which required further surgery in 2001 to remove the instrumentation. He alleges impairments due to cervical degenerative disc disease, neuropathy of the upper extremities, cervical arthritis, and inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.
B. Procedural History
On March 18, 2009, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning January 1, 1999. On June 9, 2011, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. On July 11, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not eligible for disability insurance benefits because Plaintiff was able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy despite having severe impairments of cervical degenerative disc disease, status post surgeries; neuropathy of the upper extremities; and arthritis. Upon review, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to further consider Plaintiff's neuropathy of the upper extremities and its effects on Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, update medical records, and obtain vocational expert testimony if warranted by the expanded record.
On September 13, 2012, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and testified at a second hearing before a different ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On October 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. On June 28, 2013, Plaintiff sought review by this Court.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a "specific quantum of supporting evidence." Id. As a general rule, "[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).
III. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a "severe" medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2002, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1, 1999, through his date last insured of December 31, 2002. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments through the date last insured: cervical degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, neural foraminal narrowing with nerve root impingement requiring discectomy and fusion and history of pseudoarthrosis with removal of instrumentation. At step three, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, ...