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Earls v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 31, 2016

Kaylee Earls, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

NEIL V. WAKE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Plaintiff Kaylee Earls seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her supplemental security income under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error, the Commissioner’s decision will be affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in November 1990 and applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits when she was 21 years old. She has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. When she was 12 years old, she had surgery for lumbar scoliosis, which caused nerve damage. She continues to have leg and back pain for which she takes pain medication. In 2013, she worked two days a week for about three hours a day handling mail for a medical facility. She was able to drive, help with grocery shopping, do laundry, lift a gallon of milk, but not lift her two-year-old son who weighed 28 pounds. She drives three hours to visit her family, but has developed a leg cramp, which required her to stop and walk around for about an hour to relieve the cramp.

On May 31, 2012, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability beginning April 13, 2008. On December 13, 2013, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On January 30, 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. On August 31, 2015, Plaintiff sought review by this Court.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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. 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); accord Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (“Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ’s findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”).

III. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL 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, but 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 so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2012, the protective application date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status post lumbar scoliosis reduction surgery and fusion (in 2003); degenerative disc disease; nerve damage; and leg pain. 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 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except: she is limited to occasional postural activities such as climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; she is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she is to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold; and, she is to avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, such as machinery or working at heights.

The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy ...


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