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Quiroz v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 25, 2017

Dawn N. Quiroz, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOUGLAS L. RAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits in October 2011, claiming disability since March 3, 2011. (A.R. 17.) The claim was denied initially on June 14, 2012, and upon reconsideration on January 14, 2013. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On September 25, 2014, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 42-65.) The ALJ issued a written decision three months later, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 17-33.) This became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 1-3.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 14), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 15-17). For reasons stated below, the Court finds that Defendant's decision must be reversed and the case remanded for an award of benefits.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         In determining whether the ALJ committed legal error, the district court is bound to apply the legal standards imposed by the law of this Circuit. This includes the requirement that, absent evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996). Similarly, unless contradicted by another physician, if “the ALJ wishes to disregard the opinion of the treating physician, he or she must make findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983).

         DISCUSSION

         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). 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 (RFC) 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 RFC, 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, 2016, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 3, 2011. (A.R. 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: myalgia, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with mild dextroscoliosis, obesity, depressive disorder, and history of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 22-23.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform light work … except [she] can stand [and] walk six hours in an eight-hour day; [she] can sit six hours in an eight-hour day; [she] should never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, [she] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, and crawl; [she] cannot perform repetitious keyboarding or use of hand tools requiring torqueing; [she] must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, and unprotected heights; and [she] can understand, remember, and carry out at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks.

(Id. at 23-24.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 31.) At step five, however, after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Id. at 32.)

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the RFC and step five determinations, arguing that the ALJ improperly weighed medical opinions and erred in rejecting her symptom testimony. Defendant counters that the ALJ properly resolved conflicts in the medical opinions based on substantial evidence, and provided sufficient reasons for finding Plaintiff not credible. The parties disagree as to whether any remand should be for an award of benefits or further proceedings.

         The Court agrees with Plaintiff that the ALJ erred in discrediting her testimony and improperly weighing the medical opinions. Because this legal error was not harmless, the ALJ's decision must be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. The ALJ Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's Credibility

         Plaintiff provided written reports and testified at the hearing about her pain, fatigue, and other symptoms caused by her impairments and how they severely limit her daily activities. (Id. at 49-60, 186-207, 229-36, 239-50.) The ALJ found the testimony regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms not entirely credible. (Id. at 25.) This adverse credibility finding is legally erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence.

         In evaluating the credibility of a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or other symptoms, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that reasonably could be expected to produce some degree of the symptoms alleged. Second, if the claimant makes this showing and there is no evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281.

         Here, the ALJ expressly found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. (A.R. 25.) Because the ALJ made no finding of malingering, he was required to give clear and convincing reasons for his adverse credibility finding. “This is not an easy requirement to meet: The clear and convincing standard is the most demanding required in Social Security cases.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1015 (9th Cir. 2014) (quotation and citation omitted); see also Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284 (“The ALJ must state specifically which symptom testimony is ...


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