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Cervantez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 6, 2017

Raquel Alina Cervantez, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN Z. BOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Raquel Alina Cervantez seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 17.) For the reasons below, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for an award of benefits.

         I. Background

         On July 16, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for disability benefits. (AR[1] 141.) Plaintiff asserts disability beginning on December 30, 2005. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on December 22, 2014, and upon reconsideration on June 1, 2015. (Id. at 98-101, 104-07.) Plaintiff requested a hearing which took place on March 24, 2016. (Id. at 119.) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Laura S. Havens denied Plaintiff's application for benefits in a decision dated April 26, 2016. (Id. at 13-40.) On July 26, 2016 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 1-3.)

         On August 30, 2016, having exhausted the administrative review process, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). (Doc. 1.) On January 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits. (Doc. 17.) Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision on February 15, 2017. (Doc. 18.) On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief. (Doc. 19.)

         II. Legal Standard

         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 was not disabled and not entitled to benefits (AR 35.) At step one, the ALJ concluded the Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Id. at 18.) At step two, the ALJ determined the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia syndrome, reflex sympathetic dystrophy of the right lower extremity, depression, anxiety, [and] bipolar disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).” (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).” (Id.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except:

[S]he can sit six hours out of an eight-hour work day; she can stand or walk two hours out of an eight-hour workday. She requires a sit/stand option every thirty minutes. She can lift, carry, push and pull ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally. She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can have only occasional exposure to heights, moving machinery, humidity, temperature extremes, and vibrations. She can occasionally understand, remember, and carry out complex and detailed job instructions. She can only occasionally interact with coworkers and the public.

(Id. at 20.)

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 34.) At step five, the ALJ found that “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has not been under a ...


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