United States District Court, D. Arizona
S, Willett, United States Magistrate Judge
before the Court is Michael Hickle's
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security
Administration's (“Social Security”) denial
of his application for disability insurance benefits. The
Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff's appeal
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based upon the
pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security, with or without remanding the case for a
rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise of
U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 13).
reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and
the parties' briefing (Docs. 25, 29, 34), 1 the Court
finds that the Administrative Law Judge's
(“ALJ”) decision contains harmful legal error.
For the reasons explained in Section II, the decision is
reversed and the case is remanded to the Commissioner of
Social Security for an immediate award of benefits.
Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for
disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed
to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical
or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). To be
eligible for benefits based on an alleged disability, the
claimant must show that he or she suffers from a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him
or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant must also show that
the impairment is expected to cause death or last for a
continuous period of at least 12 months. Id.
decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits,
an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions,
which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding
the first four steps:
Step One: Is the claimant engaged
in “substantial gainful activity”? If so, the
analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise,
the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a
medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A
severe impairment is one which significantly limits the
claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant
does not have a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, disability benefits are denied at this step.
Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment
equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the
Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed
impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be
disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be
disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step of the
Step Four: Does the impairment
prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant
performed in the past? If not, the claimant is “not
disabled” and disability benefits are denied without
continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.
analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof
shifts to the Commissioner:
Step Five: Can the claimant perform
other work in the national economy in light of his or her
age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled
to disability benefits only if he or she is unable to perform
other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Social Security is
responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that
other work exists in significant numbers in the national
economy that the claimant can do, given the claimant's
residual functional capacity, age, education, and work
Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's
Court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by
substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards.
Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir.
2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th
Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence” is less than a
preponderance, but more than a “mere scintilla.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)
(quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197,
229 (1938)). It is relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
determining whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts
from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater,
157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v.
Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there
is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's
determination, the Court cannot substitute its own
determination. See Morgan v. Comm'r of the Social
Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)
(“Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that
must be upheld.”); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ, not the Court, is
responsible for resolving conflicts and ambiguities in the
evidence and determining credibility. Magallanes,
881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53
F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
the Court considers the harmless error doctrine when
reviewing an ALJ's decision. An ALJ's decision need
not be remanded or reversed if it is clear from the record
that the error is “inconsequential to the ultimate
nondisability determination.” Tommasetti v.
Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations
omitted); Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is
harmless so long as there remains substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ's decision and the error “does
not negate the validity of the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion”) (citations omitted).
who was born in 1960, has been employed as a truck driver and
laborer. (A.R. 59, 120). In April 2013, Plaintiff filed an
application for disability insurance benefits. (A.R. 224-25).
Plaintiff's application alleged that on March 7, 2013, he
became unable to work due to (i) chronic pain in his back,
legs, and arms; (ii) left arm injury; (iii) renal
insufficiency; (iv) depression; and (v) anxiety. (A.R.
120-21). Social Security denied the application on September
27, 2013. (A.R. 161-64). In March 2014, upon Plaintiff's
request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the
denial of benefits. (A.R. 165-69). Plaintiff sought further
review by an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in March 2015.
(A.R. 38-65, 170-71).
April 30, 2015 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R.
15-31). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision
of the Social Security Commissioner. (A.R. 1-6, 10-11). On
March 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requesting judicial review and
reversal of the ALJ's decision.
The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step ...