United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge
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).
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
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). 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
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:
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.
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), 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.
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). 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.
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).
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”)
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).
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.
The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Disability
Step One: Engagement in “Substantial Gainful
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.
Step Two: Presence of Medically Severe Impairment/Combination
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
Step Three: Presence of Listed Impairment(s)
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).
Step Four: Capacity to Perform Past Relevant Work
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
[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.
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).
Step Five: Capacity to ...