United States District Court, D. Arizona
Neil V. Wake United States District Judge.
Plaintiff John Lee McLaughlin seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), 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. 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.
Plaintiff was born in June 1973 and was 37 years old on the alleged disability onset date. He has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. He worked as a day laborer, a garbage truck driver, a dump truck driver, an ink mixer, and a convenience store clerk. He is 5’11” and weighs about 265-285 pounds.
Plaintiff suffered a lower back injury at work in 2004. He has not worked since 2007. In 2008, he had back surgery for a herniated disk at L5-S1 on the left. In 2010 Plaintiff reported pain and left radiculopathy, and an MRI showed some possible disk bulge at the surgery site and a midline herniated disk at L4-5 that was present several years before. In December 2010, Plaintiff’s neurosurgeon found the MRI did not show any definitive nerve root compression at S1 despite reported symptoms that were consistent with a left S1 radiculopathy, and he recommended nerve blocks rather than surgery. Plaintiff did not have nerve blocks. In February 2011, Plaintiff reported to his primary care physician that he had been advised to have epidural injections, but he refused because his father had a bad experience and because he was concerned the injections could leave scars. In July 2011, Plaintiff’s primary care physician prescribed a back brace with built-in electrodes and a TENS unit to treat Plaintiff’s pain.
Plaintiff alleges constant back pain and numbness as well as nerve pain radiating down his left leg. To manage his pain, Plaintiff is prescribed Lyrica (nerve pain medicine), Soma (muscle relaxer), oxycodone (opioid pain medicine), and hydromorphone (opioid pain medicine). He testified the medication makes his pain tolerable and the only side effects he experiences are weight gain from the Lyrica and occasional insomnia from the hydromorphone. Medical records indicate Plaintiff has been taking opioid pain medicine since at least 2010.
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on May 18, 2011, and for supplemental security income on April 5, 2013, alleging disability beginning April 28, 2011. On August 5, 2013, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On September 17, 2013, 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 April 24, 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. 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); 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.”). “Overall, the standard of review is highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015).
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 meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 30, 2012, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 28, 2011, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degeneration of the lumbar spine intervertebral disk, obesity, and lumbar radiculitis. 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 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following exceptions. The claimant cannot crawl, crouch, climb, squat, or kneel. The claimant cannot use the lower extremities for pushing/pulling and must have a sit/stand option, which would allow him to sit or stand alternatively at will provided that the claimant is not off task more than 10% of the work period.
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any 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 that Plaintiff could perform. Representative occupations include parking lot attendant, cashier, and ticket taking positions.
A. The ALJ Provided Specific, Clear, and Convincing Reasons for Discrediting Plaintiff’s ...