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Pilgreen v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 26, 2017

Monica Inez Pilgreen, Plaintiff,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Eileen S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Monica Inez Pilgreen's (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security Administration's (“Social Security”) denial of her claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 1383(c). 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. 19).

         After reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and the parties' briefing (Docs. 29, 30, 31, 32), the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of harmful legal error. The decision is therefore affirmed.


         A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation

         The 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). The Act also provides for supplemental security income to certain individuals who are aged 65 or older, blind, or disabled and have limited income. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(A)(3)(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.

         To 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), 416.920(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding the first four steps:[1]

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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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 analysis.
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), 416.920(f). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.

         If the analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner:[2]

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), 416.920(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 experience. Id.

         B. Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's Determination

         The 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). Although “substantial evidence” is less than a preponderance, it is 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 means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id.

         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 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). This is because the ALJ, not the Court, is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The Court must also consider the harmless error doctrine when reviewing an ALJ's decision. This doctrine provides that 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).

         II. Plaintiff's Appeal

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1969, has worked as a file clerk, small product assembler, storage facility manager, and as an assistant manager and manager at apartment complexes. (A.R. 72, 83-84). In 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (A.R. 243-44, 247-57). Plaintiff's applications alleged that on January 27, 2015, Plaintiff became unable to work due to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, fibromyalgia, “[b]ack, arthritis, scoleosis [sic], ” “knee, recovery from surgery, ” chronic pain, and learning disability. (A.R. 116, 130). Social Security denied the applications on May 11, 2015. (A.R. 182-89). In June 2015, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of benefits. (A.R. 190-97). Plaintiff sought further review by an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in January 2016. (A.R. 68-90).

         In his March 2, 2016 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R. 18-35). 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, 14). On May 11, 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.

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Disability Analysis

         1. Step One: Engagement in “Substantial Gainful Activity”

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 27, 2015. (A.R. 22). Neither party disputes this determination.

         2. Step Two: Presence of Medically Severe Impairment/Combination of Impairments

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following three impairments: (i) obesity; (ii) fibromyalgia; (iii) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (iv) degenerative joint disease of the right knee; (v) major depressive disorder; (vi) panic disorder; (vii) agoraphobia; and (viii) post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (A.R. 22). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by not including Plaintiff's alleged pituitary tumor in the list of severe impairments. (Doc. 29 at 11-12).

         3. Step Three: Presence of Listed Impairment(s)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations. (A.R. 24-25). Plaintiff disputes this finding. (Doc. 29 at 12).

         4. Step Four: Capacity to Perform Past Relevant Work

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that

[Plaintiff] cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, and stoop but never kneel, crouch, or crawl. In addition to normal breaks and lunch, she must have the opportunity to alternate positions between sitting and standing every hour without a break in service. Mentally, the claimant retains the ability to understand, remember, and carryout simple instructions and tasks. She cannot interact with the public and can occasionally interact with coworkers and supervisors.

(A.R. 25).

         Based on the RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as it was generally performed. (A.R. 33). In her appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's RFC assessment by arguing that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of a consulting psychologist who evaluated Plaintiff. (Doc. 29 at 19-20).

         5. Step Five: Capacity to ...

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