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Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 21, 2017

Stuart D. Taylor, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Stuart D. Taylor seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which on remand from the Appeals Council denied him disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act for the period of January 1, 2009, through April 21, 2013. Plaintiff was previously found disabled beginning April 22, 2013. Because the present decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for calculation and award of benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born May 5, 1963. Plaintiff attended high school but did not receive a diploma. He worked as a cook. Plaintiff alleges disability due to back surgeries, back pain, left knee arthroscopy, learning disability, double hernias, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus.

         On October 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. On January 31, 2013, he appeared with his attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On April 24, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was disabled as of April 22, 2013, but not before. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, alleging disability should have been granted as of January 2009.

         By notice dated July 19, 2013, the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was disabled beginning April 22, 2013. It vacated the hearing decision only regarding the issue of disability before April 22, 2013, and remanded for resolution of specific issues during that period.

         Supplemental proceedings were held on January 16, 2014. By written decision dated April 16, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from January 1, 2009, through April 21, 2013, within the meaning of the Social Security Act. On March 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision. On May 27, 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). Claims that are not actually argued in an appellant's opening brief are not considered on appeal. Indep. Towers of Washington v. Washington, 350 F.3d 925, 929 (9th Cir. 2003).

         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 March 31, 2014, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, status post laminectomies and fusion surgeries, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder NOS, personality disorder NOS, learning disorder NOS, and obesity. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does ...


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