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Corless v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 19, 2017

Leeandra D. Corless, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff applied for social security benefits in October 2012, claiming disability since September 16, 2010. After state agency denials, Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on April 2, 2014. (AR 32-64.) The ALJ issued a written decision two months later, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 12-25.) This became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-4.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 12), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 15, 20, 26). For reasons stated below, the Court finds that Defendant's decision must be reversed and the case remanded for an award of benefits.


         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         In determining whether the ALJ committed legal error, the district court is bound to apply the legal standards imposed by the law of this Circuit. This includes the requirement that, absent evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996). Similarly, if “the ALJ wishes to disregard the opinion of the treating physician, he or she must make findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983). Where the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, and it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled were such evidence credited as true, this Circuit has directed that the case be remanded for an award of benefits. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1292.


         Whether a claimant is disabled is determined using a five-step evaluation process. The claimant must show that (1) she is not currently working, (2) she has a severe impairment, and (3) her impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional capacity (RFC) precludes her from performing any past work. If the claimant meets her burden at step three, she is presumed disabled and the process ends. If the inquiry proceeds and the claimant meets her burden at step four, the Commissioner must show at the fifth and final step that, despite her impairments, the claimant is able to work given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)(4).

         Plaintiff has met her burden at steps one and two: she has not worked since the alleged date of disability and has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, neuropathy, migraine headaches, hand tremors, obesity, possible cognitive disorder with memory loss, mood disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (AR 15.) The ALJ found at step three that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment. (AR 16-17.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform simple and routine tasks and limited sedentary work. (AR 17.) Based on this RFC and the vocational factors, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is not disabled because there are a significant number of jobs that she can perform. (AR 24-25.)

         Plaintiff challenges the RFC and step four determinations. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed medical opinions and erred in rejecting her testimony about the severity of her pain and other symptoms. Defendant counters that the ALJ properly resolved conflicts in the medical opinions based on substantial evidence, and provided sufficient reasons for finding Plaintiff not credible. The parties disagree as to whether any remand should be for an award of benefits or further proceedings.

         The Court agrees with Plaintiff that the ALJ erred in discrediting her testimony. Because this legal error was not harmless, the ALJ's decision must be reversed and, for reasons stated below, remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         Plaintiff provided written reports and testified at the hearing about her pain, fatigue, and other symptoms and how they severely limit her daily activities. (AR 42-56, 306-17, 347-55.) The ALJ found the testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms not entirely credible. (AR 18.) The ALJ first claimed that symptom testimony, standing alone, could not be the basis for a disability determination absent the existence of a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms. (AR 18.) The ALJ concluded that there was a “lack of evidence” in this regard, and that Plaintiff's testimony about the severity of her symptoms was “unsupported by the clinical findings and evidence as a whole.” (AR 18-19.) But this conclusion is in direct contradiction with the ALJ's earlier finding that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[.]” (AR 18.)

         Moreover, this Circuit has made clear that the claimant “need not produce objective medical evidence of the pain or fatigue itself, or the severity thereof.” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1282 (citing Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1405 (9th Cir. 1986)). Rather, by “requiring that the medical impairment ‘could reasonably be expected to produce' pain or another symptom, the Cotton test requires only that the causal relationship be a reasonable inference, not a medically proven phenomenon.” Id. The ALJ “may not reject subjective symptom testimony under the Cotton analysis simply because there is no showing that the impairment can reasonably produce the degree of symptom alleged.” Id. An ALJ errs where, ...

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