United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Deborah Lynn Krieg seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 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 58-year-old female, has a high school education and formerly worked as a bartender and a line cook. On June 20, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2008. On March 22, 2013, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On July 12, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on November 4, 2013, making the ALJ's 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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2010, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2008. A.R. 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: right sacroiliac joint dysfunction with some degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and history of polysubstance dependence. A.R. 20. 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. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:
medium work... with the following exceptions[:] [t]he claimant can lift and/or carry thirty pounds occasionally and twenty pounds frequently[, ] [t]he claimant can stand and/or walk for about six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for about six hours in an eight-hour work [day][, ] [t]he claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds[, ] [t]he claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl[, ] [t]he claimant has no restrictions on kneeling[, ] [t]he claimant should avoid moderate exposure to hazardous machinery, avoid concentrated exposure to excessive vibration, avoid concentrated exposure to irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, etc., and avoid moderate exposure to unprotected heights and operational control of moving machinery, excluding an automobile.
A.R. 21. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a bartender or line cook. A.R. 25. Although this ended the disability inquiry, the ALJ alternatively found that at step five, 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. 26.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff can perform past relevant work, and (2) the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Plaintiff's treating nurse ...