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Sanchez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 30, 2016

Barbara Sanchez, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending 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 appeal.[1]

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1974, and was thirty five years old on the date of her alleged disability. (Tr. at 147).[2] 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.

         On 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. (Id.).

         Plaintiff's 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).

         On 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 Plaintiff's contention.

         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). 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. (citation omitted).

         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. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To 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:

         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. § 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.

         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.” 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).

         4. At 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 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. 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 disabled.

         In 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.

         C. The ALJ's Evaluation Under the Five-Step Process

         The ALJ 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).

         Prior 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 ...

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