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Mertens v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 8, 2016

Christina Dawn Mertens, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Christina Dawn Mertens seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied her disability insurance benefits under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) 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, a 49-year-old woman, has an MBA and previously worked as a marketing researcher, elementary and middle school teacher, and retail supervisor. On November 17, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning March 12, 2010. On February 21, 2014, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On April 14, 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.

         II. Legal Standard.

         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) (citation omitted).

         III. The ALJ’s Five-Step 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 at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. 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 (“RFC”) 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 RFC, 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 met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 12, 2010, the alleged onset date. A.R. 23. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with a history of decompression laminectomy, discectomy, and fusion; diabetes; post-traumatic disorder; and depression. Id. 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 Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. A.R. 25. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform “light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except she can perform only simple, repetitive tasks.” A.R. 27. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. A.R. 35. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. A.R. 36.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly rejecting Plaintiff’s testimony as to the severity of her symptoms; (2) improperly rejecting the VA disability determination; (3) improperly relying on medical-vocational guidelines to determine that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy; (4) failing to consider that Plaintiff could only perform simple, repetitive tasks; and (5) failing to articulate a basis for determining Plaintiff’s work capacities.

         A. Plaintiff’s Credibility.

         In evaluating the credibility of a claimant’s testimony regarding subjective pain or other symptoms, the ALJ is required to engage in a two-step analysis: (1) determine whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the pain or other symptoms alleged; and, if so with no evidence of malingering, (2) reject the claimant’s testimony about the severity of the symptoms only by giving specific, clear, and convincing reasons for the rejection. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. The ALJ ...


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