United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Freddy Allen Samora seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding him not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. 16. For the reasons that follow, the Court will remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this order.
Plaintiff applied for disability and supplemental security insurance benefits in April 2010, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2005. Doc. 18 at 2. After a hearing on January 31, 2012, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on March 6, 2012, finding Plaintiff not disabled. A.R. 20-28. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 18 at 2.
II. Legal Standard.
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).
A. Five-Step Sequential Evaluation.
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 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 determined that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2005. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following impairments that are severe when considered in combination: diabetes mellitus, a bipolar disorder, and a mood disorder. At step three, the ALJ found 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 residual functional capacity to perform light work with restrictions as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.929(b), that Plaintiff is limited to unskilled work, that he is precluded from work which requires interaction with the public, and that he is limited to simple reading, writing, and math. At step five, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for three reasons. First, he argues that the ALJ erred in proceeding with the hearing after Plaintiff indicated that he had a representative. Doc. 16 at 1. Second, he asserts that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Angulo, an examining psychologist. Id. at 13. Finally, he argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting his subjective complaints without providing clear and convincing reasons. Id. at 18. The Court will consider each argument in turn.
A. Lack of Representation.
"Lack of counsel does not affect the validity of [a] hearing unless the plaintiff can demonstrate prejudice or unfairness in the administrative proceedings." Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1551 (9th Cir. 1985). Plaintiff argues generally that Plaintiff did not understand the "ramifications of proceeding with the hearing" without counsel and that the ALJ should have known that Plaintiff had difficulty reading and should have postponed the hearing. Doc. 16 at 13. Plaintiff also vaguely alleges that the ALJ "took advantage of [Plaintiff]'s clearly expressed uncertainty" to proceed with the hearing. Id. Plaintiff does not, however, argue or demonstrate that any prejudice or ...