United States District Court, D. Arizona
Joshua L. Hart, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.
DAVID G. CAMPBELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Plaintiff Joshua L. Hart 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) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the Commissioner’s decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.
Plaintiff, a 36-year-old male, has a high school diploma and previously worked as a paratrooper, a process technician, and a television repairman. On December 19, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning January 13, 2010. On December 4, 2013, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On January 15, 2014, 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. (quotation marks and citation omitted). 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) (citation 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, and 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 (“RFC”) 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 RFC, 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, 2017, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 13, 2010. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, post laminectomy syndrome, obesity, and status-post spinal cord stimulator implant. 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 Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:
light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except he could frequently climb ramps or stairs and stoop, occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, balance, crouch, kneel and crawl. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, excessive noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts and gas, hazardous machinery and unprotected heights.
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly weighing medical opinion evidence, (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiff’s credibility, (3) failing to account for Plaintiff’s obesity in the RFC determination, ...