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Schmidt v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 22, 2016

John Schmidt, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff John Schmidt seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied him 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 February 1972 and was 39 years old on the date his application was filed. Plaintiff has a limited education, is able to communicate in English, and has no past relevant work. In December 2013, Plaintiff lived with his wife, 15-year-old stepson, and 2-year-old grandson. He is able to drive, perform personal care, and watch television. He uses a cane sometimes, but it has not been prescribed.

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income disability benefits in 1990, 1993, 1994, and 1998. He received benefits for approximately ten years due to lower back problems. During that time, Plaintiff received fusion surgery at the L4/L5 and L5/S1 levels. Plaintiff’s receipt of benefits ceased due to incarceration between 2006 and 2009. Plaintiff applied for benefits on June 17, 2009, alleging back and leg pain, and received an unfavorable decision on April 11, 2011. Plaintiff’s request for review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 19, 2012.

         On July 27, 2011, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning April 12, 2011, due to back and leg problems. On December 19, 2013, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ. Plaintiff’s attorney argued that Plaintiff’s back impairment had worsened since the April 11, 2011 denial of benefits and that it meets or equals Listing 1.04A. Plaintiff testified that he had back surgery in 2003 and in August 2013 he had surgery to correct a deviated nasal septum. He also testified that about twice a week he cares for his 2-year-old grandson while his wife is at work. He reported pain and numbness in his back, feet, legs, right hip, neck, head, hands, and between his shoulders.

         On February 28, 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 4, 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. Generally, when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, courts must uphold the ALJ’s findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). “Overall, the standard of review is highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015).

         Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.

         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. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(b). 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. § 416.920(c). 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. If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. 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. § 416.920(e), (f). 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. § 416.920(g). 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 July 27, 2011, the application date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar, cervical, and thoracic spine; status post lumbar spine infusion; history of small spinal canal; and obstructive sleep apnea. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or ...


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