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Bakarich v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 30, 2015

Stephanie Bakarich, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


JOHN Z. BOYLE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Stephanie Bakarich seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her social security benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 13.) For the reasons below, the Court will reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for further proceedings.

I. Background

On December 2, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (AR[1] 559-66.) In April 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance (DI) benefits under Title II of the Act.[2] ( Id. at 79-80.) In both Applications, Plaintiff asserts disability beginning on October 14, 1998.[3] ( Id. at 79-81, 559.) Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on April 11, 2011, and her DI application was denied upon reconsideration. ( Id. at 47-51, 53-55, 569-73.) On August 4, 2011, Plaintiff requested a hearing. ( Id. at 56.) Subsequently, both applications were set for a hearing. ( Id. at 58-60.) In a decision dated January 30, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Paula Fow denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. ( Id. at 20-29.) On June 7, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. ( Id. at 11-14.)

Having exhausted the administrative review process, on December 23, 2013, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits. (Doc. 13.) On July 9, 2014, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 16.) On September 4, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc. 17.) On February 12, 2015, Defendant filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority, arguing that the Ninth Circuit's decision in Treichler v. Comm'r of SSA, 775 F.3d 1090 (9th Cir. 2014), requires the Court to remand for further proceedings, instead of for an award of benefits, should the Court find reversible error. (Doc. 19.) Plaintiff filed a Response on February 25, 2015, arguing that Plaintiff is disabled and an award of benefits is appropriate even under the Court's holding in Treichler. (Doc. 20.)

II. Legal Standards

a. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability benefits determinations. 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); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). "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); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

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 that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court "must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). The 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). Similarly, 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).

b. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process

To be eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must show an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A person is under a disability only:

if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act:

The five-step process for disability determinations begins, at the first and second steps, by asking whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity" and considering the severity of the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). If the inquiry continues beyond the second step, the third step asks whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 and meets the duration requirement. See id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry. See id. If the process continues beyond the third step, the fourth and fifth steps consider the claimant's "residual functional capacity" in determining whether the claimant can still do past relevant work or make an adjustment to other work. See id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v).

Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). "The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).

Applying the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled and is not entitled to benefits. ( Id. at 29.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 23.)[4] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), spina bifida occulta, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse, in remission. ( 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 23-24.)

At step four, the ALJ found the following:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). However, [Plaintiff] would be limited to occupations requiring no more than simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment and involving relatively few work place changes.

( Id. at 24.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has "no past relevant work." ( Id. at 28.) At step five, the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. ( Id. ) Given that finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled under ...

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