United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. TEILBORG, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
November 24, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for
disability and disability insurance benefits. (Tr.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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
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).
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).
Definition of Disability
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
Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).
Five-Step Evaluation Process
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
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
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. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the
claimant can perform ...