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O'Grady-Spear v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 7, 2016

Deborah O'Grady-Spear, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Deborah O'Grady-Spear's appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for disability benefits, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by finding that (1) Plaintiff's fibromyalgia is neither medically determinable nor severe, (2) Plaintiff's migraines are not severe, and (3) Plaintiff is not credible. The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural Background

         On November 24, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits. (Tr. 16).[1] On December 8, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income. (Id.) In her applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 31, 2007. (Id.) Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on July 18, 2012, and upon reconsideration on November 1, 2012. (Id.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing, which was conducted before ALJ Paula Fow via videoconference on July 16, 2013. (Id.) On September 19, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 26). After Plaintiff's request for review by the Social Security Administration Appeals Council was denied, she commenced this action in federal court on May 5, 2015. (Doc. 1).

         B. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1951 and lives with her husband in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Tr. 48, 97). Plaintiff completed high school and multiple years of college before working for several decades as a bookkeeper, auditor, office manager, accounting clerk, and retail manager. (Tr. 48, 61, 72). Currently, Plaintiff's sole source of income is from retirement social security benefits. (Tr. 49).

         In 2006, an ALJ determined that Plaintiff was disabled and entitled to social security benefits from September 4, 2000 through August 31, 2005. (Tr. 75). During that closed period of disability, Plaintiff suffered from the following impairments: fibromyalgia, asthma, obesity, sinus problems, affective disorder-moderate, and cervical arthritis. (Tr. 73). The ALJ found, however, that on September 1, 2005, Plaintiff “experienced ‘medical improvement' related to her ability to work” and “retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary exertional work.” (Tr. 74). Consequently, as of September 1, 2005, Plaintiff has not been found disabled under social security standards. Plaintiff now seeks disability with an alleged onset date of May 31, 2007. (Doc. 1).

         II. Legal Standard

         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he trier of fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); see Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On the other hand, the Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted).

         Notably, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. Rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         A. Definition of Disability

         To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that, among other things, she is “under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is:

under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         B. Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. A finding of “not disabled” at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:

1. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must “significantly limit[] [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities are the “abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs, ” such as lifting, carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine. Id. § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either have lasted for “a continuous period of at least twelve months, ” be expected to last for such a period, or be expected “to result in death.” Id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The “step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment, then the claimant is not disabled.
3. Having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's “residual functional capacity” is the most he can still do despite all his impairments, including those that are not severe, and any related symptoms. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1).
4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To make this determination, the ALJ compares its “residual functional capacity assessment . . . with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of work he previously did, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the final step.
5. At the final step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work” that exists in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ considers the claimant's “residual functional capacity” and his “age, education, and work experience.” Id. ยง 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant can perform ...

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