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Rodriguez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 22, 2016

Christopher Ray Rodriguez, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

MICHELLE H, BUMS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Christopher Ray Rodriguez’s appeal from the Social Security Administration’s final decision to deny his claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After reviewing the administrative record and the arguments of the parties, the Court now issues the following ruling.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In April 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income alleging disability beginning September 1, 2009 (later amended to April 25, 2012). (Transcript of Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 15, 65-71, 295-302.) His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. at 15, 24-34, 303-325.) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. at 15, 47.) A hearing was held on May 22, 2014, (Tr. at 336-79), and the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. at 12-23). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review (Tr. at 6-11), making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then sought judicial review of the ALJ’s decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Court must affirm the ALJ’s findings if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible legal error. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” and “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720.

In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court considers the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ’s conclusion. See Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); see Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the [Commissioner’s] conclusion, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21.

III. THE ALJ’S FINDINGS

In order to be eligible for disability or social security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an “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). An ALJ determines a claimant’s eligibility for benefits by following a five-step sequential evaluation:

(1) determine whether the applicant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”;
(2) determine whether the applicant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments;
(3) determine whether the applicant’s impairment equals one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges as so severe as to preclude the applicant from engaging in substantial gainful activity;
(4) if the applicant’s impairment does not equal one of the listed impairments, determine whether the applicant is capable of performing his or her past relevant work;
(5) if the applicant is not capable of performing his or her past relevant work, determine whether the applicant is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience.

See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). At the fifth stage, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956(9th Cir. 1993).

At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 25, 2012 - the alleged amended onset date. (Tr. at 17.) At step two, she found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the hip, bilateral degenerative joint disease of the knees, and morbid obesity. (Tr. at 17.) At step three, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Commissioner’s regulations. (Tr. at 18-19.) After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant is able to sit, stand or walk for six hours out of an eight hour workday. The claimant requires a cane or walker for ambulation. The claimant can occasionally climb stairs, never climb ladders, occasionally balance but never stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to heights, moving machinery and temperature extremes.”[1] (Tr. at 19-21.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work, but, considering his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. at 21-23.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability ... from April 25, 2012, through the date of [her] decision.” (Tr. at 23.)

IV. DISCUSSION

In his brief, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to make a proper finding at step five by erroneously relying on the vocational expert’s testimony and failing to resolve conflicts between the DOT and the need for a “cane or walker” as set forth in the residual functional capacity assessment, (2) failing to properly weigh medical source opinion evidence, (3) failing to find “substantial evidence of medically determined impairments, ” (4) “failing to consider the evidence as a whole in her determination of Plaintiff’s credibility, ” (5) “failing to properly consider substantial evidence that plaintiff’s inability to meet significant requirements of ‘light work’ results in a determination he is limited to a ‘sedentary’ or ‘less-than-sedentary’ exertional RFC, ” and (6) failing to consider new evidence submitted to the Appeal’s Council.

1. The ALJ’s step five determination

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to make a proper finding at step five by erroneously relying on the vocational expert’s testimony and failing to resolve conflicts between the DOT and the need for a “cane or walker” as set forth in the residual functional capacity assessment.

At step five, the Commissioner has the burden of demonstrating that the claimant can perform some work that exists in “significant numbers” in the national or regional economy, taking into account the claimant’s residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999). “The Social Security Administration has taken administrative notice of the [DOT], which is published by the Department of Labor and gives detailed physical requirements for a variety of jobs.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1153 n.8. “In making disability determinations, the Social Security Administration relies primarily on the [DOT] for ‘information about the requirements of work in the national economy.’” Id. at 1153 (quoting SSR 00-4p at *2). The ALJ may also use testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). See id. Evidence by a VE should generally be consistent with the DOT, and while neither the DOT nor VE testimony ...


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