United States District Court, D. Arizona
V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
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).
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.
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