United States District Court, D. Arizona
Christina D. Murillo, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Christina D. Murillo seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.
Plaintiff was born in December 1975. She has a bachelor's degree in social work and has previously worked as a benefits administrator and a benefits specialist.
On September 3, 2009, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits. On July 13, 2010, she applied for supplemental security income. She alleged disability beginning July 29, 2009 in both applications. On October 17, 2011, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified.
On November 10, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding 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.
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. ALJ's 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 at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. 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 ("RFC") 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 RFC, 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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 29, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and obesity. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has mild sleep apnea. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:
[L]ight work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the ability to lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, sit, stand and walk for 6 out of 8 hours per day with a sit-stand option required at will, unlimited pushing and pulling with the upper and lower extremities as long as within these weight limits, occasional balancing, climbing, crouching and crawling, frequent stooping and kneeling, and the need to avoid extremely cold temperatures, dust, fumes and gases, humidity, hazardous heights and moving machinery, and no more than moderate noise levels, and the ability to tolerate office-level noise.
A.R. 23-24. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a benefits administrator or benefits specialist because such work does not require the performance of ...