United States District Court, D. Arizona
STEVEN P. LOGAN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Kristoffer Shaun Cornelius seeks judicial review and reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying his application for Social Security disability benefits.
On March 29, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (AR 30, 208-15.) Plaintiff alleges that he became unable to work on March 1, 2010, due to his disabling conditions of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder ("OCD"), bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and sleep deprivation. (AR 132, 136.) On August 12, 2010, the SSA denied Plaintiff's application (AR 132-39), and on December 17, 2010, the SSA denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration (AR 141-47). Pursuant to Plaintiff's request (AR 148-49), a hearing was held on November 29, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Joan G. Knight (AR 46-82).
Applying the five-step sequential framework,  on January 4, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision ruling that Plaintiff is not disabled and is not entitled to disability benefits. (AR 30-41.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2010, his alleged disability onset date. (AR 32.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "bipolar disorder, NOS,  generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, alcohol dependence, in reported remission since July 15, 2011, and amphetamine dependence, in reported remission since July 15, 2011." (AR 32.)
At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 33-34.) In making this determination, the ALJ considered the degree to which claimant's mental impairments interferes which the four broad functional areas (referred to as "paragraph B" listing criteria). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c), 416.920a(c). In areas of activities of daily living, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild restrictions; in the area of social functioning, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild difficulties; in the area of concentration, persistence, or pace, the ALJ found Plaintiff had moderate difficulties; and in the area of episodes of decompensation, the ALJ found Plaintiff had two episodes of decompensation. (AR 33-34.)
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is capable of simple, unskilled work." (AR 34.) The ALJ stated that the RFC assessment reflected "the degree of limitation the [ALJ found] in the paragraph B' mental function analysis." (AR 34.) Based on his residual functional capacity finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could no longer perform his past work. (AR 39.) At step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 40.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. (AR 41.)
On February 7, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner of the SSA. (AR 2-4.) Having exhausted the administrative review process, on March 13, 2013, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.)
II. Standard of Review
The district court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court reviews the ALJ's decision under the substantial evidence standard and must affirm the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and it is free from legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; "it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. Even if the ALJ erred, however, "[a] decision of the ALJ will not be reversed for errors that are harmless." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the district court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993); Orn, 495 F.3d at 630. Where "the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing a decision, [the district court] may not substitute its judgment for that of [the ALJ]." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). See also Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). It reviews "only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630
Arguing that this case should be remanded for an award of benefits, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred: (1) by failing to incorporate adopted medical opinion evidence; (2) by improperly rejecting medical opinion evidence; and (3) by improperly rejecting Plaintiff's testimony regarding his impairments. (Docs. 26, 28.) In response, Defendant agrees that the ALJ erred in resolving her findings on medical opinion evidence, but disputes whether the ALJ would be required to find ...