United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge
before the Court is Becky Lee Cook’s
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security
Administration’s (“Social Security”) denial
of her applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. 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. 20).
reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and
the parties’ briefing (Docs. 25, 28, 31), 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 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). “Substantial evidence” is
less than a preponderance, but 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)). It is relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
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). 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. 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”) (citations omitted).
who was born in 1964, has been employed as a caregiver and
fast food worker. (A.R. 66, 74). In 2011, Plaintiff filed
applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. (A.R. 223-39).
Plaintiff’s applications alleged that on October 23,
2011, she became unable to work due to the following
conditions: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(“COPD”), “oxygen dependent, ” back
pain, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety,
asthma, bronchitis, and enlarged heart. (A.R. 74, 88). Social
Security denied the applications in May 2012. (A.R. 136-43).
In November 2012, upon Plaintiff’s request for
reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of
benefits. (A.R. 146-52). Plaintiff sought further review by
an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in January 2014. (A.R.
28-73). In his February 21, 2014 decision, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff has not been under a disability from October 23,
2011 through the date of the decision. (A.R. 13-22).
appealed the ALJ’s ruling. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff’s request for review, making the ALJ’s
decision the final decision of the Social Security
Commissioner. (A.R. 1-4). On August 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed
a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
requesting judicial review and reversal of the ALJ’s
The ALJ’s Application of the Five-Step Disability
Step One: Engagement in “Substantial Gainful
determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since October 23, 2011, the alleged onset