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Espinoza v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 25, 2014

Sherry Renee Espinoza, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Sherry Renee Espinoza seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant"), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Defendant's decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.

I. Background.

Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging her disability began on August 9, 2006. Doc. 15 at 1. Since making her application, Plaintiff has had three hearings before Administrative Law Judges. Id. The Appeal Council has twice remanded the ALJ's decision denying benefits. Id. Plaintiff's most recent hearing occurred on May 7, 2013. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. Id. ; A.R. 38-59. A vocational expert also testified. A.R. 59-68. On June 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 13-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Id. at 1-6. Defendants now concede that this third decision also included several legal errors.

II. Legal Standard.

The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if it 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. 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. The ALJ's Five-Step 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 step one, 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 step five, 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, 2011, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 9, 2006. A.R. at 18. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: left tarsal tunnel syndrome/neuritis, diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia, and obesity. Id. 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. Id. at 20. At step four, the ALJ found:

[Plaintiff] had the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) subject to the following. She could lift and carry up 20 lbs occasionally, and 10 lbs frequently; she could sit at least 6-hours, and stand or walk up to 2-hours in a standard 8 hour workday with normal breaks; she has no limits on pushing or pulling within the above weight restrictions; she could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but should have avoided climbing ladders, rope, or scaffolds; she could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and she should have avoided concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery.

Id. at 20. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. Id. at 24. At step five, the ALJ found that, based on the testimony of the vocational expert, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. at 25. Given that finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not "under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act." Id. at 26.

IV. Medical Source Evidence.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions of the following medical sources: Dan Bangart, D.P.M; Jeff Alvarez, M.D.; John Prieve, D.O.; and Jeanette Jicha, F.N.P. Doc. 15 at 13-18. Defendant concedes the ALJ erred in considering the opinions of Dr. Bangart, [1] Dr. Prieve, [2] and Ms. Jicha, [3] and asks the Court to remand for further proceedings to correct these errors. Doc. 20 at 5-6. The Court will accept Defendant's concession of ...


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