United States District Court, D. Arizona
Annessa Y. Morrison, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Annessa Morrison, appearing on her own behalf, seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), 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 not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.
Plaintiff was born on November 9, 1968. She has an associate degree in graphic design. She has worked as a professional singer, a waitress, a sales manager, and a videogame tester. Plaintiff suffers from various impairments, including fibromyalgia. A.R. 55. As described by the Ninth Circuit,
[F]ibromyalgia, previously called fibrositis, [is] a rheumatic disease that causes inflammation of the fibrous connective tissue components of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other tissue.... Common symptoms... include chronic pain throughout the body, multiple tender points, fatigue, stiffness, and a pattern of sleep disturbance that can exacerbate the cycle of pain and fatigue associated with this disease. Fibromyalgia's cause is unknown, there is no cure, and it is poorly-understood within much of the medical community. The disease is diagnosed entirely on the basis of patients' reports of pain and other symptoms.
Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 589 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); see also Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 855 (9th Cir. 2001); SSR 12-2P, 2012 WL 3104869 (July 25, 2012).
On January 25, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning September 17, 2007. On November 9, 2012, Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On December 14, 2012, the ALJ decided 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, 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, but less than a preponderance. Id. It is 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 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 December 31, 2012, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2007. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia and depression. 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:
[S]edentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) except that the claimant requires an opportunity to sit/stand for a few minutes each hour. The claimant can occasionally engage in postural activities. The claimant can frequently do hand work. The claimant must have limited public contact.
A.R. 16. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in ...