United States District Court, D. Arizona
Nicole H. Lea, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Nicole H. Lea seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied her application for supplemental security income under §§ 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
Plaintiff, a 41-year-old female, previously worked as a cab driver and courier. She has an eighth-grade education. On April 14, 2008, she applied for supplemental security income alleging disability beginning March 1, 2007. On April 7, 2010, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On July 12, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case to the ALJ. Plaintiff appeared at another hearing with her attorney on January 29, 2013, to provide additional testimony. A vocational expert also testified. On March 8, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's March 2013 decision the Commissioner's final decision.
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).
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 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 ("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 the fifth and final step, 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 14, 2008, the date of application. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bipolar depressive disorder with psychosis; borderline personality disorder; and cannabis, opioid and alcohol abuse. A.R. 119. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does 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. This determination, however, accounted for Plaintiff's substance use disorders. Id. The ALJ further concluded that if Plaintiff discontinued substance abuse she would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, but those impairments would not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. A.R. 120. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following RFC:
If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she would be limited to simple work with occasional, superficial interaction with others.
A.R. 121. The ALJ found that even if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, she would be unable to perform any of her past relevant work. A.R. 125. 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. A.R. 126.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons: (1) the ALJ's RFC determination lacks substantial evidence because the opinion of a treating physician and two social workers were not afforded appropriate weight, and (2) the ALJ improperly ...