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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 12, 2016

Erica L. Smith, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg, Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Erica L. Smith's appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by finding Plaintiff and her husband's testimony to be non-credible and by improperly weighing the opinions of treating physicians Ramin Sabahi, M.D., and Nirmala Aryal, M.D. The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural Background

         On November 9, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of March 29, 2009. (Tr. 24).[1] On April 1, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging the same onset date. (Id.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on February 28, 2011, and upon reconsideration on July 7, 2011. (Id.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing which was conducted before ALJ Philip E. Moulaison on February 28, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Id.) On March 27, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 35). After Plaintiff's request for review by the Social Security Administration Appeals Council was denied, she commenced this action in federal court on March 3, 2014. (Doc. 1).

         B. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1981 and lives with her husband and their three children in Avondale, Arizona. (Tr. 45). Plaintiff earned her GED certification before working for several years as a photographer/manager, cashier, housekeeper, meat cutter, customer service representative, cook, fast food worker, telemarketer, snack bar attendant, and waitress. (Tr. 47, 205). Plaintiff's final day of employment was on October 9, 2008, when she was terminated from her position as a photographer/manager for violating company policy. (Tr. 46, 181). According to Plaintiff, she became disabled on March 22, 2009, [2]after she “ha[d not] been able to find employment since” she was terminated in October 2008. (Tr. 181).

         Plaintiff's daily activities consist of waking up and assisting her children prepare for school. (Tr. 193). After Plaintiff drives her children to school, she goes back home to “sit on the couch.” (Id.) After several hours, Plaintiff will stand up and get food from the kitchen. (Id.) Plaintiff will then sit on the couch until she drives to pick up her children from school. (Id.) Upon her return, Plaintiff will then “flip flop” on the couch until she goes to bed “around 1am - 3am.” (Id.) Plaintiff states that she can care for her personal hygiene and dress, in addition to “regularly” exercising four to five days per week. (Tr. 556, 585, 746). Plaintiff smokes tobacco and denies alcohol use. (Tr. 557).

         C. Medical Background

         Plaintiff claims that she suffers from an extensive list of impairments, including fibromyalgia, migraine and tension headaches, obesity, knee pain, anxiety disorder NOS, and depressive disorder NOS. (Doc. 25 at 2). Plaintiff also claims that she suffers from myalgia myositis, depression with anxiety, fatigue, and possible thyroid disorder. (Tr. 156, 158, 181). Plaintiff takes an equally extensive number of medications, including Tramadol, Trazodone, Effexor XR, Soma, Ibuprofen, Omeprazole, Ranitidine, Meclizine, Frova, Nortriptyline, Clindamycin topical, Retin-A gel topical. (Tr. 556-57). Plaintiff has sought treatment from a variety of sources for a range of ailments, dating back to 2008 when Plaintiff was treated for knee pain and depression. (Doc. 25 at 3). Physicians have prescribed Plaintiff the above-listed medications, in addition to recommending water therapy for physical pain. (Id. at 5). One physician determined that Plaintiff has no work-related mental limitations, (id. at 6), while another has deemed Plaintiff to be “intelligent [and] articulate, ” (Tr. 677).

         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.” 42 U.S.C. § 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.

42 U.S.C. § 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § ...

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