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Read v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 10, 2017

Ross R. Read, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant.


          Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Ross R. Read seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying him social security benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc 21.) For the reasons below, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. Background

         On September 21, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset of May 25, 2012. (AR[1] 173-76.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on December 11, 2012, and upon reconsideration on July 1, 2013. (Id. at 104-07, 112-14.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on March 27, 2014. (Id. at 42-79.) In a decision dated June 4, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Thomas Cheffins denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (Id. at 26-41.) On March 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Id. at 1-6.)

         Having exhausted the administrative review process, on April 18, 2016, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision by filing a Complaint with this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On September 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits. (Doc. 21.) On November 7, 2016, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 25.)

         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 35.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 25, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 31.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “psoriatic arthritis, left knee degenerative joint disease, status post meniscectomy in 2008 and replacement in 2013, degenerative disc disease status post fusion of the lumbar spine, and sleep apnea (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).” (Id. at 32.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand five out of eight hours a day; sit six out of eight hours a day; frequently push or pull with the bilateral upper extremities; occasionally use foot control operations for the left lower extremity; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs; frequently balance; and frequently handle and finger bilaterally. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat; extreme cold; excessive vibration; irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, and gases; hazardous machinery (except motor vehicles); and unprotected heights.


         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform his past work as a registered representative and detective. (Id. at 35). Given that finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to articulate clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony, and that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the medical evidence in assessing ...

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