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Aguirre v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 4, 2017

Jacinto Johnny Aguirre, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


          Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jacinto Johnny Aguirre seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying his social security benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1; Doc. 12.) 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 October 11, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR[1] 253-68.) Plaintiff alleged an amended disability onset date of July 1, 2010.[2] (Id.) Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on February 4, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 8, 2013. (Id. at 196-99, 202-08.) On July 16, 2013 Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing. (Id. at 209-10.) Subsequently, Plaintiff's application was set for a video hearing, which was held on June 19, 2014. (Id. at 36.) In a decision dated August 4, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Laura Speck Havens denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (Id. at 20-27.) On August 29, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for 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.)

         On May 6, 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 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the Social Security Administration for an award of benefits. (Doc. 12.) On October 13, 2016, Defendant filed a Response Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 13.) On October 27, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc. 14.)

         II. 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).

         III. 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).

         Here, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not “disabled, ” as the term is defined in 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423. (AR 26.) In following the five-step sequential evaluation process used for determining whether an individual is disabled, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ concluded at step one that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2010, the amended onset date.” (Id. at 20.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, obesity, hypertension, asthma, and arthritis.” (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 22.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that Plaintiff:

is able to sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour work day, stand for 2 hours out of an 8-hour work day, and walk for 2 hours out of an 8-hour work day; [Plaintiff] requires a cane for ambulation; [Plaintiff] is able to occasionally lift and carry 10 lbs., and frequently lift and carry 10 lbs.; [Plaintiff] can occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop but never climb ladders, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and [Plaintiff] is able to work in environments without ...

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