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Merritt v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 3, 2014

Thomas Wade Merritt, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


BERNARDO P. VELASCO, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Thomas Wade Merritt, filed this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Plaintiff presents one issue on appeal: whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by failing to articulate consideration of whether Plaintiff's condition meets or equals the listed criteria for an orthopedic impairment in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("the Listings" or "Listing of Impairments"). (Doc. 19.) Before the court is an opening brief filed by Plaintiff (Doc. 19), the Commissioner's opposition (Doc. 21), and Plaintiff's brief in reply (Doc. 22). The United States Magistrate Judge presides over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, having received the written consent of both parties. (Doc. 14.)

For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision denying benefits is affirmed.

I. Background

Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on October 14, 2010, alleging disability as of June 19, 2006, due to back injury, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, leg pains, lower back injury, and shooting pains in his legs. Transcript/Administrative Record (Tr.) 187-196, 215. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 73-74, 89-90. Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified before an ALJ at an administrative hearing. Tr. 45-72. On May 24, 2012 the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 20-40.

A. The ALJ's Findings and Conclusions

The ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2011. Tr. 25, ¶ 1. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 17, 2006. Tr. 25 ¶ 2. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy and adjustment disorder with depressed mood. Tr. 25, ¶ 3. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments found in the Listings. Tr. 26, ¶ 4. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform light work subject to limitations and is unable to perform any past relevant work, but that considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform and concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability from June 19, 2006 through the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 27, ¶5, Tr. 38-39, ¶¶ 6-11.

This decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). (Doc. 1.)

II. Legal Standard

The Court has the "power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's decision to deny benefits "should be upheld unless it is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence. " Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). "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) (citing Robbins v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). In determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court "must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Id. (quoting Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882). The Court 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. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).

The first two steps of the five-step test to determine if a claimant is disabled involve threshold determinations that the claimant is not presently working and has an impairment which is of the required duration and which significantly limits the claimant's ability to work. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). In the third step of the five-step analysis, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments, found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. See id. §§ 1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). A claimant with an impairment which (1) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix I and (2) meets the duration requirement is awarded benefits at step three without further inquiry. See id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

The Listings describe specific impairments of each of the major body systems which are considered "severe enough to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience" and designate "the objective medical and other findings needed to satisfy the criteria of that listing." See id. §§ 404.1525(a), (c)(3), 416.925(a), (c)(3). A mere diagnosis is insufficient to meet or equal a listed impairment; a claimant must establish that he or she "satisfies all of the criteria of that listing, including any relevant criteria in the introduction." See id. §§ 404.1525(c)(3), (d), 416.925(c)(3), (d).

To equal a listed impairment, a claimant must establish symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings "at least equal in severity and duration" to the characteristics of a relevant listed impairment. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526 (explaining medical equivalence); 416.926 (same). Medical equivalence can be found for a listed impairment, an unlisted impairment, or a combination of impairments. See id. §§ 404.1526(b), 416.926(b). If, as in this case, a claimant has an impairment described in the Listings, but does not exhibit one or more of the findings specified in the particular listing, or exhibits all of the findings but one or more findings is not as severe as specified in the listing, a finding that the impairment is medically equivalent to the listing is appropriate when other findings related to the impairment are found that are at least of equal medical ...

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