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Doran v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 8, 2016

Thomas W. Doran, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg, Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Thomas W. Doran's appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (the "Commissioner's") partial denial of his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred by: (1) finding Plaintiffs impairments do not meet Listing 1.04(A)'s criteria; (2) failing to allow a medical expert to testify during the administrative hearing; and (3) finding Plaintiffs testimony to be non-credible. The Court now rules on Plaintiffs appeal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits on October 31, 2006, alleging disability as of January 25, 2006. He also filed a concurrent application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. In September 2011, an ALJ determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of December 2, 2009. The Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's finding but remanded for reconsideration of certain evidence relating to the time before December 2, 2009. Notably, Plaintiff sought a determination that he was disabled before December 31, 2008, the date on which he was last insured for disability benefits.[1] On remand, however, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled before December 2, 2009. At issue here is whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled before December 2, 2009.

         B. Plaintiffs Background

         Plaintiff was born on December 3, 1954. He has a high-school equivalent education ("GED") and two years of college. (Tr. 31-32)[2]. Plaintiff served in the military from 1974 to 1981 (Tr. 238, 585). His subsequent employment included administrative, banking, and service work. (Tr. 31-32, 126-27, 148-49, 238, 260). The vocational expert classified Plaintiff's past relevant work as skilled and semi-skilled, ranging from sedentary to a medium exertional level. (Tr. 44-46).

         C. Medical Background

         Plaintiff claims that he suffers from an extensive list of impairments, including "degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, seizure disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorder with panic attacks." (Doc. 13 at 3). Plaintiff received extensive treatment for both his physical and mental impairments, which this Court summarized in its earlier Order. See Doran v. Astrue, No. CV-10-8155-PCT-LOA, 2011 WL 4032320, at *2-12 (D. Ariz. Sept. 12, 2011).


         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.2d747, 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 also 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. Bow en, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). 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, he is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E) (2012). 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) (2016); 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, 157F.3dat721. 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)(h). 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 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h)). The "step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chafer, 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 ["RFC"] based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record." Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's RFC 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 his RFC "assessment. . . with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work." Id. ยง 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of work he ...

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