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Frantz v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 27, 2017

Randy Russell Frantz, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Randy Russell Frantz, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny supplemental security income. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, this Court affirms the determination of the Commissioner.


         On June 26, 2013, Mr. Frantz protectively filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2013.[1] (Tr. 22.) His claim was initially denied on December 2, 2013 and it was denied again upon reconsideration on March 21, 2014. (Id.) Mr. Frantz then filed a written request for a hearing and he testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Sheldon P. Zisook. (Id.) On August 31, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr. Frantz not disabled. (Tr. 30.)

         In evaluating whether Mr. Frantz was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[2] (Tr. 23-24.) At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Frantz had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2013, the alleged onset date.[3] (Tr. 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Frantz suffered from two medically determinable impairments: schizoaffective disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (“ADHD”). However, he determined that these impairments were not severe, as they did not significantly limit Mr. Frantz's “ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” (Tr. 24.) Having found Mr. Frantz not disabled at step two, the ALJ did not continue his analysis through the remainder of the five-step process.

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-3.) Mr. Frantz filed the complaint underlying this action on November 22, 2016 seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is now fully briefed. (Docs. 10, 11, 12.)


         I. Legal Standard

         A reviewing federal court need only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). “When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because “[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). However, the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Nor may the Court “affirm the ALJ's . . . decision based on evidence that the ALJ did not discuss.” Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         II. Analysis

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Denying Mr. Frantz's Request for Benefits at Step Two.

         The Ninth Circuit does not defer to the Secretary's application of the severity regulations at step two, but imposes a more narrow construction upon them. Yuckert v. Bowen, 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988) (“Despite the deference usually accorded to the Secretary's application of regulations, numerous appellate courts have imposed a narrow construction upon the severity regulation applied here.”). In this circuit, “the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). Thus “[a]n ALJ may find that a claimant lacks a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments only when his conclusion is ‘clearly established by medical evidence.'” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting S.S.R. 85-28). Therefore, in this circuit at least, the correct application of the substantial evidence requirement requires the ALJ to demonstrate how the medical evidence “clearly establishes” that the claimant had at most only “a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.” Webb, 433 F.3d at 687.

         1. The Medical Evidence Supported a Finding Mr. Frantz's ...

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