United States District Court, D. Arizona
JAMES A. TEILBORG, District Judge.
Plaintiff Adrian Burrell appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's (the "Commissioner") denial of disability benefits. The Court now rules on her appeal. (Doc. 18).
A. Procedural Background
On February 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of January 23, 2010. (R. 239). The Commissioner denied benefits on June 17, 2010, (R. 150), and Plaintiff requested reconsideration, (R. 154). Plaintiff was again denied on December 30, 2010, (R. 155), and she appealed.
On July 9, 2012, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Patricia A. Bucci held a hearing on Plaintiff's claim. (R. 50-79). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her disability onset date to March 1, 2010. (R. 54). Following the ALJ's unfavorable decision, (R. 18-38), Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (R. 1), Plaintiff filed an appeal with this Court. (Docs. 1, 18). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly develop the record, improperly discounted the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, and improperly rejected Plaintiff's subjectively-reported symptoms. (Doc. 18 at 7, 11, 19).
B. Medical Background
The Court will briefly summarize the major points of Plaintiff's medical history, which is more thoroughly recounted in the administrative record. Plaintiff has been diagnosed with headaches, hypertension, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post laminectomy of a cervical spine tumor, a history of seizure disorder, chronic opiate dependence, incontinence, depression, and obesity. (R. 380, 394, 400, 429, 483). In February 2009, Plaintiff suffered a seizure possibly related to a long-standing cervical spine tumor. (R. 379). In March 2009, Plaintiff underwent surgery to remove the spine tumor. (R. 369). Following surgery, Plaintiff did not experience any more seizures but had paresthesias in her left arm and leg, and some decreased function in her left hand with fine motor activity. (R. 363). Also in March 2009, Plaintiff underwent an MRI and was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease at the L3-L4 through L5-S1 levels with "left neural foraminal disc protrusion vs. small extrusion abutting the existing left L4 nerve root." (R. 385).
A. Definition of Disability
To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show, among other things, that she is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). The Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is:
under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
B. Five-Step Evaluation Process
The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). A finding of "not disabled" at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:
1. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must "significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities are the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs, " such as lifting, carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either have lasted for "a continuous period of at least twelve months, " be expected to last for such a period, or be expected "to result in death." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The "step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not disabled.
3. Having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment "meets or equals" one of the impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's "residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's "residual functional capacity" is the most she can still do despite all her impairments, including those that are not severe, and any related symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).
4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To make this determination, the ALJ compares its "residual functional capacity assessment... with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of work she previously did, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the final step.
5. At the final step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant "can make an adjustment to other work" that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ considers the claimant's "residual functional capacity" and her "age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant can perform other work, she is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform other work, she will be found disabled. As previously noted, the Commissioner has the burden of proving that the claimant can perform other work. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.
In evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520b. This includes medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and ...