United States District Court, D. Arizona
David G. Campbell United States District Judge
Plaintiff Robert Glenn Kline seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied him 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”) was not supported by substantial evidence and was based on legal error, the decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.
Plaintiff is a 53 year old male who previously worked as a recreational vehicle repairer. On March 29, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning December 2007. On January 23, 2013, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a hearing before an ALJ.
A vocational expert also testified. On March 13, 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.
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 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 met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. A.R. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: sleep apnea, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine, fibromyalgia, obesity, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, “carpal tunnel syndrome status post release surgery, ” and “status post removal of hardware - right ankle.” Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. A.R. 28. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform:
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant is able to occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. The claimant should never operate foot controls with his right lower extremity, or be required to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should also avoid concentrated exposure to non-weather related extreme hot, extreme cold, pulmonary irritants, poorly ventilated areas, dangerous with moving mechanical parts, and exposure to unprotected heights. The claimant will also require a position having simple repetitive and routine tasks that can be learned through demonstration, without the reading of instructions.
The ALJ further found Plaintiff unable to perform any of his past relevant work. A.R. 36. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including ...