United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge
before the Court is Krista Purnell’s
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security
Administration’s (“Social Security”)
decision on her application for disability benefits. The
Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff’s appeal
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based
upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment
affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding
the case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the
exercise of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 10).
reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and
the parties’ briefing (Docs. 21, 25, 28), the Court
finds that the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ”) decision contains harmful legal error.
For the reasons explained in Section II below, the decision
is reversed and the case is remanded to the Commissioner of
Social Security for further administrative proceedings.
Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for
disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed
to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical
or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). The Act
also provides for Supplemental Security Income to certain
individuals who are aged 65 or older, blind, or disabled and
have limited income. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. To be eligible
for benefits based on an alleged disability, the claimant
must show that he or she suffers from a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him
or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(A)(3)(A).
The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected
to cause death or last for a continuous period of at least 12
decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits,
an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions,
which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The claimant has the
burden of proof regarding the first four steps:
Step One: Is the claimant engaged
in “substantial gainful activity”? If so, the
analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise,
the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a
medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A
severe impairment is one which significantly limits the
claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).
If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or
combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied at
this step. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment
equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the
Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals
one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively
presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is
presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step
of the analysis.
Step Four: Does the impairment
prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant
performed in the past? If not, the claimant is “not
disabled” and disability benefits are denied without
continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f),
416.920(f). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.
analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof
shifts to the Commissioner:
Step Five: Can the claimant perform
other work in the national economy in light of his or her
age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled
to disability benefits only if he or she is unable to perform
other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).
Social Security is responsible for providing evidence that
demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in
the national economy that the claimant can do, given the
claimant’s residual functional capacity, age,
education, and work experience. Id.
Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ’s
Court must affirm an ALJ’s decision if it is supported
by substantial evidence and is based on correct legal
standards. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110
(9th Cir. 2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172,
174 (9th Cir. 1990). Although “substantial
evidence” is less than a preponderance, it is more than
a “mere scintilla.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting
Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229
(1938)). “Substantial evidence” means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion. Id.
determining whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s decision, the Court considers the record as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts
from the ALJ’s conclusions. Reddick v. Chater,
157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v.
Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there
is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ’s
determination, the Court cannot substitute its own
determination. See Morgan v. Comm’r of the Social
Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)
(“Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, it is the ALJ’s conclusion
that must be upheld.”); Magallanes v. Bowen,
881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ,
not the Court, is responsible for resolving conflicts and
ambiguities in the evidence and determining credibility.
Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v.
Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
the Court considers the harmless error doctrine when
reviewing an ALJ’s decision. This doctrine provides
that an ALJ’s decision need not be remanded or reversed
if it is clear from the record that the error is
“inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability
determination.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d
1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted);
Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is harmless so
long as there remains substantial evidence supporting the
ALJ’s decision and the error “does not negate the
validity of the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion”)
who was born in 1984, has been employed as an office clerical
worker, warehouse worker, hostess, and caregiver. (A.R. 702,
724). In February 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for
disability insurance benefits. (A.R. 137-38).
Plaintiff’s application alleged that on September 28,
2012, she became unable to work due to ependymoma. (A.R. 40).
Social Security denied the application on May 2, 2013. (A.R.
79-82). Social Security also denied Plaintiff supplemental
security income. (A.R. 83- 86). On December 6, 2013, upon
Plaintiff’s request for reconsideration, Social
Security affirmed the denial of disability benefits. (A.R.
88-89). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ.
(A.R. 91-92). An ALJ conducted a hearing in July 2014. (A.R.
697-728). In her August 18, 2014 decision, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff was disabled from September 28, 2012 through
October 26, 2013. (A.R. 22-23). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff’s disability ended on October 27, 2013 due to
medical improvement. (A.R. 23).
appealed the ALJ’s ruling that Plaintiff’s
disability ended. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s
decision the final decision of the Social Security
Commissioner. (A.R. 1-6). On December 18, 2014, Plaintiff
filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to 42 ...