United States District Court, D. Arizona
JOHN Z. BOYLE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Randi Jo McKnight seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 25.) For the reasons below, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for further administrative proceedings.
On February 1, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits. (AR at 21.) On June 19, 2013, Plaintiff's application was denied. ( Id. ) On October 1, 2013, Plaintiff's application was denied upon reconsideration. ( Id. ) On June 30, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Patricia A. Bucci. ( Id. ) On August 7, 2014, the ALJ ruled Plaintiff is not entitled to disability benefits because she is "not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act." ( Id. at 30.) On January 14, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making it the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. ( Id. at 1-6.) Plaintiff thus exhausted the administrative review process.
On March 11, 2015, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On August 18, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits or, in the alternative, for further proceedings. (Doc. 25 at 26-28.) On September 17, 2015, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 26.) On December 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc. 31.)
II. Legal Standards
a. Standard of Review
The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability benefits determinations. 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); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). "Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).
In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court "must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). The 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). Similarly, the Court reviews "only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014).
b. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process
To be eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must show 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); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A person is under a disability only:
if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act:
The five-step process for disability determinations begins, at the first and second steps, by asking whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity" and considering the severity of the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). If the inquiry continues beyond the second step, the third step asks whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 and meets the duration requirement. See id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry. See id. If the process continues beyond the third step, the fourth and fifth steps consider the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ["RFC"] in determining whether the claimant can still do past relevant work or make an adjustment to other work. See id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v).
Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). "The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).
Applying the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled and is not entitled to benefits. (AR at 21-30.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. ( Id. at 23.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: "status post total right knee replacement with subsequent revision, status post comminuted periprosthetic right femur fracture with subsequent hardware removal, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine." ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or ...