United States District Court, D. Arizona
Brenda S. Mendez, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Brenda S. Mendez 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 under sections 216(i) and 223(d) 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 further administrative proceedings.
Plaintiff was born in October 1975. She previously worked as a fast food worker and stock clerk. Among other impairments, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She last worked in 2009 for a temporary employment service, which stopped calling her because she declined work due to panic attacks. She has presented on numerous occasions to both the emergency room and her primary care provider for chest pain, which has been diagnosed as likely caused by anxiety.
On July 21, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 1, 2009. On April 5, 2012, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified.
On May 14, 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 April 25, 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.
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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2013, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, diabetes mellitus (controlled by diet), panic disorder, mood disorder, and borderline personality disorder. The ALJ found that the record included numerous references to and diagnoses of chest pain due to anxiety, but no actual cardiac impairment. The ALJ observed that Plaintiff has repeatedly complained of chest pain, typically during episodes of panic, as early as October 2006. Similar assessments were made in December 2008 and April 2010.
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 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ found Plaintiff has moderate restriction in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace. The ALJ noted that some difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace often accompany Plaintiff's diagnoses.
At step four, the ALJ considered the objective medical record, Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony, a third-party function report, and medical source opinion evidence. The ALJ found Plaintiff's testimony and prior statements to the Social Security Administration regarding her alleged impairments and resulting functional limitations not fully credible. The ALJ afforded partial weight to the third-party statements of Plaintiff's father. The ALJ rejected Plaintiff's treating physician's statements and the opinions of two consultative examiners, but gave significant weight to the opinions of non-examining State agency psychological consultants.
The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff:
has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) with additional mental limitations in that she is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers and supervisors. She needs to be employed in a low-stress job, with low-stress being defined as a job with few, if any, simple decisions made, only occasional changes in the work setting, and no fast-paced assembly line work.
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. The vocational expert testified that "the restriction of only occasional contact with the public as well as the fast-paced nature of fast food work and the semi-skilled nature of the stocker work would preclude the successful performance of same" by a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's residual functional capacity.
At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. To reach this conclusion, the ALJ relied on the impartial vocational expert's opinion that an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations ...