United States District Court, D. Arizona
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff John Schoeneman seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which decided that his disability under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act ended as of March 1, 2010. 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 was born in September 1965 and completed the ninth grade. Plaintiff worked loading trucks and was injured on the job. On July 30, 1992, Plaintiff was found disabled as of January 1, 1992. On November 3, 1999, it was determined that Plaintiff's disability continued due to a lumbar spine disorder. Plaintiff is diabetic and morbidly obese, and he continues to have lumbar spine degenerative disc disease. Plaintiff claims he is unable to work because of extreme back pain.
Plaintiff obtained a commercial driver's license and received truck driver training from 2005 through 2008. In 2006 and 2007, Plaintiff earned more than $50, 000 annually. In 2008, Plaintiff earned $12, 266. It does not appear that he continued to work after 2008. A hearing was held regarding overpayment, Plaintiff was found at fault in causing the overpayment, and the issue was resolved. Plaintiff testified that he was receiving Social Security disability benefits at the time of the ALJ hearing on February 19, 2013.
On April 14, 2010, it was determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of March 1, 2010. A hearing by video teleconferencing scheduled for January 11, 2013, in Phoenix, Arizona, was rescheduled for February 20, 2013, in Phoenix because Plaintiff wanted to appear in person. On February 19, 2013, Plaintiff requested a video hearing because he did not have transportation to the hearing office in Phoenix. On February 20, 2013, Plaintiff appeared in Prescott, Arizona, and testified by video teleconferencing at the hearing before the ALJ who was located in Phoenix. A vocational expert also testified. Plaintiff was informed of his right to representation, but chose to appear and testify without the assistance of an attorney or other representative.
Because Plaintiff had indicated that he would attend the hearing in Phoenix in person, the digital copy of the administrative record prepared for him was not mailed to him in advance of the hearing. Also, at the time of the hearing, the last records in the case were from October 2010, and Plaintiff had not responded to January 2013 requests for any updated medical records. Plaintiff stated that he had received additional medical evaluations and an MRI in the past month and provided the ALJ with information and consent to obtain those records. Post-hearing medical evidence was obtained and a copy provided to Plaintiff with opportunity to file a responsive statement.
On June 14, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff's disability ended as of March 1, 2010. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. On July 25, 2014, Plaintiff sought review by this Court.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
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. 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); accord Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) ("Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.").
Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.
III. ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS
If an individual is entitled to disability benefits, his continued entitlement to such benefits must be reviewed periodically. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a). Disability benefits may be discontinued if there has been medical improvement related to the claimant's ability to work and the claimant is currently able to engage in substantial gainful activity. Disability benefits also may be discontinued if there has been no medical improvement but other circumstances exist, such as the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity, does not cooperate in providing evidence or submitting to a medical examination, or fails to follow prescribed treatment expected to restore the claimant's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. To determine whether a claimant continues to be disabled, the Commissioner uses an eight-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f).
The ALJ found the most recent favorable medical decision finding that Plaintiff continued to be disabled is the decision dated November 3, 1999. The ALJ found that on November 3, 1999, Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairment: back disorder. As of November 3, 1999, the impairment was found to result in the inability to perform work activity at any exertion level on a regular and sustained basis. The ALJ found that through March 1, 2010, Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity. Because Plaintiff ...