United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge.
before the Court is Nathalie Faye Stroup's
("Plaintiff) appeal of the Social Security
Administration's ("Social Security") denial of
her claim for disability benefits. The Court has jurisdiction
to decide Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). 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. 11).
reviewing the Administrative Record ("A.R.") and
the parties' briefing (Docs. 18, 19, 20), the Court finds
that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ")
decision contains harmful legal error. For the reasons
explained in Section II below, the decision is reversed and
the case is remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security
for an immediate award of benefits.
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). 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). 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).
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
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).
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). 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.
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 and
ambiguities in the evidence and determining credibility.
Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v.
Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
Court also considers 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 1965, has worked as a medical assistant and
admissions coordinator. (A.R. 34, 38, 54). In 2012, Plaintiff
filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (A.R.
143-44). Plaintiff's applications alleged that on March
27, 2011, Plaintiff became unable to work due to chronic
pancreatitis, fibromyalgia, migraines, pain, depression, and
anxiety. (A.R. 61-62). Social Security denied the
applications on August 22, 2012. (A.R. 98-100). In March
2013, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration,
Social Security affirmed the denial of benefits. (A.R.
sought further review by an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in
October 2014. (A.R. 30-59).
December 4, 2014 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
(A.R. 12-25). 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). On
June 7, 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
completed all five steps of the disability analysis before
finding that Plaintiff is not disabled and entitled to
Step One: Engagement in "Substantial Gainful
determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since March 27, 2011. (A.R. 14). ...