United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.
before the Court is Plaintiff Barbara Sanchez's appeal
from the Social Security Commissioner (the
“Commissioner”)'s denial of her application
for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. (Doc. 1).
Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) erred in assigning “little
weight” to the medical opinion of Plaintiff's
treating cardiologist, and by rejecting Plaintiff's
testimony with respect to the symptoms afflicting her. (Doc.
32). The Court now rules on Plaintiff's
was born in 1974, and was thirty five years old on the date
of her alleged disability. (Tr. at 147). Plaintiff holds a
college education and has worked in the past as an
advertising solicitor, sales representative, customer
complaint clerk, customer service specialist, collection
clerk, and insurance service representative. (Tr. at 49-50,
169). Plaintiff has a young son who was approximately a
year-and-a-half old when Plaintiff allegedly became disabled.
From the evidence before the Court, Plaintiff's last job
appears to have been in advertising for a newspaper.
Plaintiff was laid off in 2008 on account of the
recession's significant impact on her line of work, and
was thereafter unable to obtain employment through January of
2010. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since that date.
August 16, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for
Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II of the
Social Security Act, due to the alleged disability of dilated
non-ischemic cardiomyopathy with an onset date of roughly
January 2010. The condition is, generally speaking, where
there is dilation and impaired systolic function of the left
or both ventricles of the heart. It impacts the heart's
ability to pump blood. Plaintiff's impairment stemmed
from a health incident in 2007 where “she came down
with bronchitis and the virus attacked her heart.” (Tr.
at 24). Plaintiff developed cardiomyopathy as a result, and
thereafter had a cardiac defibrillator/pacemaker installed.
Plaintiff has alleged that this condition led to chest pains,
fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms that have
rendered her incapable of returning to the workforce.
claim for benefits was initially denied on March 1, 2011, and
again upon reconsideration on July 28, 2011. (Tr. at 20).
Plaintiff thereafter filed a written request for a hearing on
August 31, 2011, which was held before ALJ Ronald C.
Dickinson on May 29, 2012. (Id.). After considering
testimony delivered at the hearing and evidence entered into
the record, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for
disability, finding that she was capable of performing
sedentary work. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's
determination to the Social Security Administration Appeals
Council, which denied a request review of the determination.
(Tr. at 1-6).
February 4, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant action, seeking
review of the ALJ's determination. Plaintiff claims that
the ALJ erred in two respects, and requests that the Court
overturn the ALJ's decision, and either award Plaintiff
disability benefits, or remand for further proceedings. With
the appeal fully briefed, the Court turns to the merits of
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). On appeal,
“issues which are not specifically and distinctly
argued and raised in a party's opening brief are
waived.” Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Trans.
Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing
Barnett v. U.S. Air., Inc., 228 F.3d 1105,
1110 n.1 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc)); Bray v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 1219, 1226
n.7 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle to an appeal from
a denial of benefits by the Social Security Commissioner).
The Ninth Circuit's reasoning is that courts “will
not manufacture arguments for an appellant, and a bare
assertion does not preserve a claim.” Id.
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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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).
The Five-Step Evaluation Process
evaluate a claim of disability, the Social Security
regulations set forth a five-step sequential process. 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:
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
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. §
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
impairment, then the claimant is not disabled.
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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's
“residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”) is the most he can still do despite all
his impairments, including those that are not severe, and any
related symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).
step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the
impairments, the claimant can still perform “past
relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 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
the final step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant
“can make an adjustment to other work” that
exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §
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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the
claimant can perform other work, he is not disabled. If the
claimant cannot perform other work, he will be found
evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step
process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case
record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520b. This includes medical opinions,
records, self-reported symptoms, and third-party reporting.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529; SSR 06-3p, 71 Fed. Reg. 45593-03.
The ALJ's Evaluation Under the Five-Step Process
found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 1, 2010, and that she was afflicted
with the severe impairment of dilated non-ischemic
cardiomyopathy, satisfying the first and second steps of the
inquiry. (Tr. at 22). At step three, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal
any of the listed impairments in the Social Security
regulations that automatically result in a finding of
disability. (Id. at 23).
to moving on to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC
determination in light of proffered testimony and objective
medical evidence. (Tr. at 23-26). The ALJ determined that
Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to
perform sedentary work” while being “precluded
from crawling, crouching, climbing, squatting, or
kneeling.” (Id. at 23). Based on this RFC, the
ALJ further determined that Plaintiff “is capable of
performing past relevant work as a customer complaint clerk,
customer service specialist, collection clerk and insurance
customer service ...