United States District Court, D. Arizona
Sandra C. Tomlinson, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
Eileen S, Willett United States Magistrate Judge
Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Sandra C. Tomlinson’s (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security Administration’s (“Social Security”) denial of her claim for disability benefits. Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning on August 2, 2002.
This Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff’s appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 12). After reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”), Plaintiff’s Opening Brief (Doc. 23), and Defendant’s Response Brief (Doc. 25),  the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision contains harmful legal error. For the reasons explained in Section II below, the decision is reversed and the case is remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further administrative proceedings.
I. LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
The Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). The Act also provides for Supplemental Security Income to certain individuals who are aged 65 or older, blind, or disabled and have limited income. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. To be eligible for benefits based on an alleged disability, the claimant must show that he or she suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(A)(3)(A). The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected to cause death or last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. Id.
To decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits, an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions, which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding the first four steps:
Step One: Is the claimant engaged in “substantial gainful activity”? If so, the analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A severe impairment is one which significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step of the analysis.
Step Four: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant performed in the past? If not, the claimant is “not disabled” and disability benefits are denied without continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.
If the analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner:
Step Five: Can the claimant perform other work in the national economy in light of his or her age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he or she is unable to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Social Security is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do, given the claimant’s residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Id.
B. Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ’s Determination
The Court must affirm an ALJ’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Although “substantial evidence” is less than a preponderance, it is more than a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id.
In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ’s conclusions. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ’s determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Morgan v. Comm’r of the Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999) (“Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ’s conclusion that must be upheld.”); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ, not the Court, is responsible for resolving conflicts and ambiguities in the evidence and determining credibility. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
The Court also considers the harmless error doctrine when reviewing an ALJ’s decision. This doctrine provides that an ALJ’s decision need not be remanded or reversed if it is clear from the record that the error is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted); Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is harmless so long as there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision and the error “does not negate the validity of the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion”) (citations omitted).
II. PLAINTIFF’S APPEAL
A. Procedural Background
Plaintiff, who was born in 1971, has worked as a hotel desk clerk and dispatcher. (A.R. 36, 54, 198). In 2002, Plaintiff’s then ten-year old son was involved in an automobile accident that left him severely brain-damaged and disabled. (A.R. 36-37). Plaintiff was not in the accident. (A.R. 47).
On April 27, 2006, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income benefits. (A.R. 198-202, 203-09). Plaintiff’s applications allege that on August 2, 2002, she became unable to work due to the following impairments: (i) bipolar disorder; (ii) post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); (iii) shoulder injuries; and (iv) diabetes. (A.R. 126). Social Security denied both applications on October 31, 2006. (A.R. 114-16, 117-20). On October 12, 2007, upon Plaintiff’s request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of Plaintiff’s application. (A.R. 123-25, 126-29). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (A.R. 131). The ALJ who conducted the hearing denied Plaintiff benefits in February 2010. (A.R. 88-105). Upon Plaintiff’s request for review, the Appeals Council remanded the case for another hearing. (A.R. 106-13).
On January 23, 2013, another ALJ held Plaintiff’s second administrative hearing. (A.R. 33-58). In her March 15, 2013 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled. (A.R. 11-32). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner. (A.R. 1-7). On October 7, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requesting judicial review and reversal of the ALJ’s decision.
B. The ALJ’s Application of the Five-Step Disability Analysis
The ALJ completed all five steps of the disability analysis before finding that Plaintiff is not disabled and entitled to disability benefits.
1. Step One: Engagement in “Substantial Gainful Activity”
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 30, 2007. (A.R. 16). Neither ...