United States District Court, D. Arizona
Janet L. Carroll, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Janet L. Carroll 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 under sections 216(i) and 223(d) 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 52 years old at her alleged onset date of October 1, 2009, and 55 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing on January 16, 2013. She previously worked as a claims clerk, telephone salesperson, secretary, and office manager. She testified that she stopped working in 2009 because chronic pain and constant headaches interfered with her concentration and caused her to work too slowly. Among other things, Plaintiff has degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, which she alleges causes chronic pain and severe headaches.
In September 2010, Plaintiff reported that she lived with her husband and was able to do very light housework. In September 2011, Plaintiff reported that her hobbies include knitting, crocheting, sewing, and scrapbooking. She also reported that she goes to the knit shop weekly and she does 50% of the housework and meal preparation. In November 2012, she reported that she lived with her husband, two children, and two dogs, and her hobbies included knitting, quilting, crocheting, and scrapbooking. In January 2013, Plaintiff testified that sitting for long periods of time causes her pain from her tailbone to her neck and numbness in her legs, and she can stand in one place no more than five minutes. She also testified that she can walk only half a block before she must stop and rest. She testified that she takes pain medications but they do not alleviate all the pain.
On July 26, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning October 1, 2009. On January 16, 2013, she appeared with her attorney in Needles, California, and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ located in Phoenix, Arizona. A vocational expert and a board-certified orthopedic surgeon also testified. On February 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, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. On October 1, 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. 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); 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. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL 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 the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. 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 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 residual functional capacity, 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, 2014, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; vocal cord dysfunction caused by allergies; and degenerative arthritis. 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 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium ...