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Harding v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 9, 2016

Patrick Dooley Harding, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


          James A. Teilrorg, Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Patrick Dooley Harding's ("Plaintiff) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's ("Commissioner") denial of his application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(1), 432, 1381 et seq. (2012).[1](Doc. 1 at 2). Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in failing to seek an updated medical opinion following the submission of probative evidence, improperly rejecting the opinion of an examining psychologist, and improperly assessing the credibility of Plaintiff s allegations. (Doc. 15 at 1). The Court now rules on Plaintiffs appeal.

         I. Background

         The parties are familiar with the background information in this case, and it is summarized in the ALJ's decision. (See Doc. 14-3 at 23-34). Accordingly, the Court will reference the background only as necessary to the decision below.

         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) (internal 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) (internal citation omitted). In other words, substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion." Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009).

         "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) (internal 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 (internal 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 and the decision is free from legal error, 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) (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) (internal quotation and citation 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. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). 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 Id. 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.l (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 535 U.S. 391 (2002)); see also Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1226 n.7 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle to Social Security appeal). The Ninth Circuit's reasoning is that courts "will not manufacture arguments for an appellant, and a bare assertion does not preserve a claim." Arpin, 26 IF.3d at 919 (internal citation omitted).

         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. 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) (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 through the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner in 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." 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 based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record." Id. § 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. 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 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 Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(3), 404.1520b. This includes medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and third-party reporting. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529; SSR06-3p, 71 Fed. Reg. 45593-03 (Aug. 9, 2006).

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

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve continuous months and that he possessed several severe impairments, [2] satisfying the first and second steps of the inquiry. (Doc. 14-3 at 26). Under step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs impairment or combination of impairments 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.)

         Prior to moving on to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC determination in light of proffered testimony and objective medical evidence. (Id. at 28-29). The ALJ found that Plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c) and 416.967(b) except [Plaintiff] can frequently stoop and occasionally balance, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps or stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds." (Id. at 28). Moreover, Plaintiff "can have occasional exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights." (Id.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff "can perform unskilled work tasks that can be learned by demonstration with 30 days or less of a simple repetitive routine nature. He can have occasional superficial and incidental contact with the public and occasional contact with supervisors or coworkers." (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "could do jobs with occasional decision making, changes in the work setting, no fast-paced work and no strict production quotas but could meet goals." (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was "unable to perform past relevant work." (Id. at 32). Finally, the ALJ determined at step five that based on Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff could perform significant numbers of jobs existing in the national economy. (Id. at 34). Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in denying him benefits for three reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to seek an updated medical opinion following the submission of probative evidence; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of an examining psychologist; and (3) the ALJ improperly assessed the ...

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