United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Thomas Corniea seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied his 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 was born on October 25, 1954. He has previously worked as a maintenance worker, bartender, and telemarketer. Since the alleged onset of Plaintiff's disability in 2009, Plaintiff has suffered a variety of impairments. He claims to suffer from a severe depression as well as an anxiety or panic disorder. These psychological problems, he claims, prevent him from working and force him to spend time alone. In May of 2010, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital on account of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Plaintiff also suffers pain in his back, knees, and shoulders. He has undergone two surgeries for his right shoulder and a surgery for his right knee. Plaintiff also claims to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fatigue, and insomnia.
On July 15, 2009, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Plaintiff claimed that his disability began on October 5, 2006, but later amended this date to June 23, 2009. A.R. 27, 949. After an initial hearing, a decision denying benefits, and a remand from the Appeals Council, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney at a second hearing before the ALJ on July 23, 2013. A.R. 962. On August 29, 2013, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 27. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, 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 December 31, 2010, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 5, 2006. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety and panic disorder; pain from arthroscopic surgeries to his right shoulder and right knee; and reactive airway disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"). 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:
[L]ight work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that he is limited to occasional overhead reaching with the upper right extremity and should avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous moving machinery and unprotected heights. He should also avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants, including dust, fumes, odors, and gases. Finally, he is limited to semi-skilled work.
A.R. 32. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is able to perform his earlier work as a telemarketer. For that reason, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled and did not proceed to step five of the analysis.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by improperly weighing the medical opinions of three doctors, by discrediting Plaintiff's testimony about his pain and symptoms, and by ...