United States District Court, D. Arizona
Dawn N. Quiroz, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
DOUGLAS L. RAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.)
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.
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
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).
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.
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.)
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
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.
The ALJ Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's
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.
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.
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 ...