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Weller v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 30, 2017

Mary Frances Weller, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Mary Frances Weller seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 15.) For the reasons below, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Background

         On September 27, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR[1] 151-52.) Plaintiff alleged that she became unable to work on June 1, 2011. (Id. at 151.) Plaintiff alleged disability based on a variety of conditions, including degenerative disc disease, three bulging back discs, numbness and tingling in arms, loss of circulation in lower extremities, severe bone pain, hypertrophic cardio myopathy, liver tumors, chronic sinus infections, chronic fatigue, and carpel tunnel syndrome. (Id. at 65-66.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on January 23, 2013, and denied upon reconsideration on August 13, 2013. (Id. at 91-93, 95-97.)

         Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on January 10, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Patricia A. Bucci (ALJ). (Id. at 46-63.) In a decision dated March 26, 2014, the ALJ ruled Plaintiff is not entitled to disability benefits because she is “not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.” (Id. at 35.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Id. at 1-4.)

         Having exhausted the administrative review process, on December 1, 2015, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On June 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits. (Doc. 15.) On July 6, 2016, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 16.) On July 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc. 17.)

         II. Legal Standards

         a. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability benefits determinations. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. “However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). 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). Similarly, the Court reviews “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014).

         b. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To be eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must show an “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); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). 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 ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act:

The five-step process for disability determinations begins, at the first and second steps, by asking whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity” and considering the severity of the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). If the inquiry continues beyond the second step, the third step asks whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 and meets the duration requirement. See Id . § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry. See Id . If the process continues beyond the third step, the fourth and fifth steps consider the claimant's “residual functional capacity” in determining whether the claimant can still do past relevant work or make an adjustment to other work. See Id . § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v).

Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013). “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).

         Applying the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled and is not entitled to benefits. (AR at 23-35.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of the disability. (Id. at 25.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: asthma, coronary artery disease status post stent, stage two chronic kidney disease, myofascial pain syndrome, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue, venous insufficiency, and lumbar degenerative disc disease. (Id.)[2] At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 27-28.)

         At step four, the ALJ found the following:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except [Plaintiff] can only frequently balance, but can occasionally climb, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. [Plaintiff] will need to avoid concentrated exposure to non-weather related extreme cold and/or extreme heat. In addition, [Plaintiff] must avoid dangerous machinery with moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights that are high or exposed.

(Id. at 28.)

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as an office manager and accounting clerk. (Id. at 35.) Given that finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from . . . [the ...

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