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Young v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 21, 2017

William Thomas Young, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff William Thomas Young seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying him disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Court will remand this case to the agency with instructions to review the record as a whole and issue a new decision.

         I. Background.

         On September 30, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning August 20, 2010. Plaintiff subsequently amended his disability onset date to October 1, 2011. On April 12, 2012, a hearing was held before the ALJ. On April 25, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments but was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision. A.R. 169.

         On July 8, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and testified at a second hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On October 2, 2014, the ALJ issued a second decision, this time holding that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe impairment and thus was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The Court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the determination only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id.

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2011. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following medically determinable impairments: bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorder, polysubstance abuse in remission, and alcohol abuse in remission. The ALJ also found, however, that none of these impairments, or a combination of the impairments, significantly limited the ability of Plaintiff to perform basic work related activities for 12 consecutive months. The ALJ therefore found that Plaintiff does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 et seq. The ALJ accordingly held that Plaintiff is not disabled. The ALJ did not proceed to steps three, four, or five.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in finding that he did not have severe impairments a step two, particularly in light of the ALJ's failure to explain why his 2014 decision on this issue contradicted his 2012 decision. Plaintiff makes other arguments, but they are not relevant to this ruling. Doc. 11.

         The key question is the appropriate analysis to apply to a step-two decision that impairments are not severe. A “severe” impairment is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The “ability to do basic work activities, ” in turn, is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). “An impairment is not severe if it is merely ‘a slight abnormality (or combination of slight ...


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