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Hamm v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 21, 2017

Virginia E. Hamm, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Virginia E. Hamm seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in January 1958. She has a high school education and has completed 2 years of college. She performed temporary office work and worked as an office manager from 2000 to 2004, as an office assistant in 2005, and in customer service from 2005 to 2009. She was laid off in June 2009 and continued to look for office work until October 2011.

         In her application for disability insurance benefits, Plaintiff alleged numerous impairments including inability to walk on her own; inability to sit or stand for long periods due to pain in her legs; nerve damage to arms, legs, hips, and feet; lack of concentration due to medications; and chronic dry, itchy skin. Plaintiff also indicated that although she stopped working for other reasons, she believed that as of October 1, 2010 (amended to 2011) her conditions became severe enough to keep her from working. At the time of her application Plaintiff reported her height as 5'7” and weight as 248 lbs.

         In March 2011 and July 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning October 1, 2011. On August 15, 2014, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a video hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On November 20, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. On April 18, 2016, Plaintiff sought review by this Court.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district 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). Moreover, “when claimants are represented by counsel, they must raise all issues and evidence at their administrative hearings to preserve them on appeal.” Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1115 (9th Cir. 1999). Failure to do so will only be excused when necessary to avoid a manifest injustice. Id.

         A 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). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. Generally, when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, courts must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). “Overall, the standard of review is highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015).

         III. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2010. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine; peripheral neuropathy; and morbid obesity. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). Specifically, the claimant is able to lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand or walk two hours out of an eight-hour day; sit six hours out of an eight-hour day; and occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and ...

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