United States District Court, D. Arizona
David G. Campbell United States District Judge
Plaintiff Juan Francisco Chavez, in a pro se action, 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. The matter will be remanded for further proceedings.
Plaintiff is a 37 year old male who previously worked in food service and as a janitorial supervisor. A.R. 33. On August 17, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning April 15, 2009. Id. at 23. On May 13, 2013, he appeared with a non-attorney representative and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. at 44-104. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On August 6, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Id. at 23. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision. Id. at 1.
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).
Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.
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 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 the claimant cannot perform such work, he 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 at any time between the alleged onset date and the date of the decision. A.R. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: episodic diverticulitis,  status post colon resection, lumbosacral spondylosis,  obesity, and alcohol abuse. Id. at 26. 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. Id. at 28. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform:
[L]ight work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that he can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He can frequently balance, stoop, and kneel, as well as occasionally crouch or crawl. He should not work around extremely hot environments or in very humid environments. Further, he should not work around unprotected heights or moving machinery.
Id. The ALJ further found Plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. At step five, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform, including housekeeping, cashier, and merchandise marker work. Id. at 34.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ’s disability determination was defective for five reasons: the ALJ (1) exhibited bias; (2) discounted the medical opinions of Plaintiff’s medical sources; (3) improperly rejected the vocational expert’s testimony; (4) improperly discounted the testimony of Plaintiff’s family, friends, and former coworkers; and (5) improperly concluded that Plaintiff had a ...