United States District Court, D. Arizona
Jennifer K. Schooley, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
EILEEN S. WILLETT, District Judge.
Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Jennifer K. Schooley's ("Plaintiff") appeal of the Social Security Administration's ("Social Security") denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff filed her Title II Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") application on August 24, 2010, alleging disability beginning April 8, 2010. This Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based 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 case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 9). After reviewing the Administrative Record ("A.R."), Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 18), Defendant's Response Brief (Doc. 20), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 21), the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of harmful legal error. The decision is therefore affirmed.
I. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
The Social Security Act provides for disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). To be eligible for benefits, the claimant must show that he or she suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected to cause death or last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits, an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions, which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding the first four steps:
Step One: Is the claimant engaged in "substantial gainful activity"? If so, the analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A severe impairment is one which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step of the analysis.
Step Four: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant performed in the past? If not, the claimant is "not disabled" and disability benefits are denied without continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.
If the analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner:
Step Five: Can the claimant perform other work in the national economy in light of his or her age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he or she is unable to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g). Social Security is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do, given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Id.
B. Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's Determination
The Court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Although "substantial evidence" is less than a preponderance, it is more than a "mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id.
In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Morgan v. Comm'r of the Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir.1999) ("Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that must be upheld."); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ, not the Court, is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
The Court must also consider the harmless error doctrine when reviewing an ALJ's decision. This doctrine provides that an ALJ's decision need not be remanded or reversed if it is clear from the record that the error is "inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted); Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is harmless so long as there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error "does not negate the validity of the ALJ's ultimate conclusion") (citations omitted).
II. PLAINTIFF'S APPEAL
A. Procedural Background
Plaintiff, who was born in 1984, has two years of college and training as a health unit coordinator. (A.R. 572). Plaintiff has experience working as a patient transporter, nurse's aide, unit clerk, and bank teller. (A.R. 41, 83). Plaintiff alleged in her initial SSDI application that on April 8, 2010, at the age of 25, Plaintiff became unable to work due to rheumatoid arthritis and depression. (A.R. 97). The application was later amended to include fibromyalgia. (A.R. 96).
Plaintiff filed her SSDI application on August 25, 2010. (A.R. 172). Social Security initially denied the application on December 6, 2010. (A.R. 121). On July 25, 2011, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of Plaintiff's application. (A.R. 108). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (A.R. 131). The ALJ held a hearing on May 9, 2012, during which Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. (A.R. 50-94). In her May 24, 2012 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled. (A.R. 29-43). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner. (A.R. 1-7). On February 17, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requesting judicial review and reversal of the ALJ's decision.
B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Disability Analysis
The ALJ completed all five steps of the disability analysis before finding that Plaintiff is not disabled and entitled to disability benefits.
1. Step One: Engagement in "Substantial Gainful Activity"
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of April 8, 2010. (A.R. 106). Neither party disputes this determination.
2. Step Two: Presence of Medically Severe Impairment/Combination of Impairments
The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following seven impairments: (i) rheumatoid arthritis; (ii) fibromyalgia; (iii) chronic pain disorder; (iv) a depressive disorder; (v) panic disorder; (vi) a history of asthma; and (vii) obesity. (A.R. 34). The ALJ's determination at this step is undisputed.
3. Step Three: Presence of Listed Impairment(s)
The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations. (A.R. 34). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting psychologist Dr. Brent Geary's opinion that Plaintiff meets Listings 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and 12.06 (Anxiety-Related Disorders).
4. Step Four: Capacity to Perform Past Relevant Work
The ALJ assessed that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), subject to several restrictions. (A.R. 36). The ALJ found that Plaintiff can stand or walk for two hours in an eight hour workday. Plaintiff can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, or stairs. The ALJ also assessed that Plaintiff may frequently balance and stoop, but can only occasionally crouch, kneel, and crawl. ( Id. ). Plaintiff may frequently reach to head height and below bilaterally and may occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. Plaintiff may frequently handle and finger bilaterally. ( Id. ). Plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, wetness, dangerous machinery with moving parts and unprotected heights. Plaintiff is further limited to performing simple, repetitive tasks and should work in a position that requires no more than average production standards. Finally, the ALJ assessed that Plaintiff should only have occasional interaction with public, co-workers, and supervisors, but she can still be around others. ( Id. ).
At the May 9, 2012 hearing, a vocational expert ("VE") testified that Plaintiff's past relevant work is classified as a nurse's aide, unit clerk, patient transporter, and bank teller. (A.R. 83). The VE testified that the exertional level of Plaintiff's past relevant work would exceed her current RFC. (A.R. 84). Most of the past work was skilled, which is also precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work. (A.R. 41).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's RFC by (i) failing to properly consider potential limitations caused by Plaintiff's fibromyalgia and obesity; (ii) improperly discrediting Plaintiff's testimony regarding her subjective symptoms; and (iii) improperly weighing the evidence from physicians and other sources, including the statements from Plaintiff's family members. Plaintiff also argues that remand of this matter is warranted in light of additional evidence that was submitted to the Appeals Council, which is now a part of the administrative record.
5. Step Five: Capacity to Perform Other Work
At the hearing, the ALJ presented the following hypothetical to the VE:
So if we have an individual who can occasionally lift and carry up to 20 pounds, frequently lift and carry up to 10 pounds. Standing and walking is limited to two hours in an eight hour day. Sitting about six hours in an eight hour day. The individual could occasionally climb, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can frequently balance and stoop. The individual can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. She can frequently reach to head height and below bilaterally. Handling and fingering bilaterally are limited to frequently. This individual must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, wetness and dangerous machinery with moving parts and unprotected heights. Additionally this individual would be limited to simple, repetitive tasks with only occasional contact with public, coworkers and supervisors but she can be around them so she doesn't need to be isolated.
The ALJ asked the VE whether there is any work that Plaintiff could perform given the hypothetical. (A.R. 85). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform representative occupations such as an addressing clerk, document preparer, and surveillance system monitor. (A.R. 85-86). Based on the VE's testimony, and after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to work as an addressing clerk, document preparer, and surveillance system monitor. (A.R. 42-42).
Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination at this step by arguing that the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE was deficient as it omitted the statement in Plaintiff's RFC assessment that Plaintiff "should work in a position that requires no more than average production standards." Plaintiff asserts that the "ALJ's reliance on VE testimony that is inconsistent with her RFC determination is reversible error." (Doc. 18 at 18).
C. Plaintiff's Challenge to the ALJ's Analysis at Step Three
At step three of the disability analysis, an ALJ considers whether a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). The Listings are divided into categories of impairments that relate to various "body systems" (e.g. musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, etc.). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). The impairments described within each category are those that Social Security considers to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience. Id. If a claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987). The Listings thus "streamlin[e] the decision process by identifying those claimants whose medical impairments are so severe that it is likely they would be found disabled regardless of their vocational background." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153.
Here, Plaintiff argues that she should be found disabled at step three, asserting that she meets or equals (i) Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and (ii) Listing 12.06 (Anxiety-Related Disorders). To support this argument, Plaintiff primarily relies on the opinion of Dr. Geary, who evaluated Plaintiff on April 18, 2012. (A.R. 908). In his report, Dr. Geary opined that:
[Plaintiff] appears to meet criteria for Section 12.04 Affective Disorders, the Major Depression causing anhedonia, appetite and sleep disturbance, psychomotor retardation, feelings of worthlessness, and difficulty in concentration and memory. She also seems to meet criteria for Section 12.06 Anxiety-Related Disorders, the Panic Disorder causing motor tension, autonomic hyperactivity, persistent fear of crowds, and panic attacks that occur unpredictably at home as well.
The ALJ rejected Dr. Geary's opinion. (A.R. 39). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's reasons for rejecting Dr. Geary's opinion are inadequate. (Doc. 18 at 19). Because Dr. Geary is an examining medical source, his opinion cannot be rejected in favor of a contradicting opinion without specific and legitimate reasons that are based on substantial evidence in the record. See Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 692 (9th Cir. 2009). The ALJ's reasons for rejecting Dr. Geary's opinion include the following:
1. The ALJ found Dr. Geary's opinion conclusory as the opinion offers "little explanation as to the severity found...." (A.R. 39). This is a specific and legitimate reason for rejecting the opinion. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002) ("The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.").
2. The ALJ noted that Dr. Geary's report is inconsistent with Plaintiff's treatment records, which do not show the severe and disabling symptoms that Dr. Geary assessed. (A.R. 40). This is also a valid reason for rejecting Dr. Geary's opinion. See Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1041 (finding it not improper for ...