United States District Court, D. Arizona
JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Sheena Marie Presley-Carrillo appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's (the "Commissioner") denial of disability benefits. The Court now rules on her appeal. (Doc. 38).
A. Procedural Background
On August 30, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging a disability onset date of August 15, 2004. (R. 157). The Commissioner denied benefits on January 20, 2011, (R. 73), and Plaintiff requested reconsideration, (R. 101). Plaintiff was again denied on April 7, 2011, (R. 84), and she appealed.
On July 12, 2012, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Earl C. Cates, Jr. held a hearing on Plaintiff's claim. (R. 37-72). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her disability onset date to August 30, 2010. (R. 177). Following the ALJ's unfavorable decision, (R. 17-35), 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, 25). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychologist and examining psychologist, rejecting Plaintiff's testimony of her symptoms, assessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, and in relying on medical-vocational guidelines to find Plaintiff to be able to work in the national economy. (Doc. 38 at 1-3).
B. Medical Background
The Court will very briefly state the major points of Plaintiff's medical history, which is more thoroughly recounted in the administrative record. Plaintiff has a long history of poly-substance abuse, beginning with childhood use of marijuana and alcohol and later expanding to methamphetamine. (R. 402, 412, 436). Plaintiff has a history of arrests for thefts to obtain drug money, and was incarcerated for two years. (R. 412). After her release from prison, Plaintiff was diagnosed with polysubstance dependence, substance-induced psychotic disorder with delusions, and borderline personality disorder. (R. 322).
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 third-party reporting. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR 06-3p.
C. The ALJ's Evaluation Under the Five-Step Process
The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process using Plaintiff's amended alleged onset date of August 30, 2010. (R. 222). The ALJ found in step one of the sequential evaluation process that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date. (R. 24). The ALJ then found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: psychosis and personality disorder. (R. 22). Under step three, the ALJ noted that none of these impairments met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments that would result in a finding of disability. (R. 22-24). The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") was the ability to "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant retains the ability to perform simple, ...