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Mixon v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 27, 2017

Susan Mixon, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on October 24, 2012, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. (A.R. 22.) Her claim was denied initially on February 1, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 30, 2013. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On April 24, 2014, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) appeared and testified at a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to February 18, 2013. (Id.)

         On September 26, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 32.) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (Id. at 15-16.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Id. at 1.) On August 10, 2016, Plaintiff sought review by this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         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.

         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. § 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 March 31, 2014, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 18, 2013. (A.R. 24.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder with psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, substance-induced mood disorder and psychotic disorder, borderline personality disorder, obesity status, and polysubstance abuse. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined 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 Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 26-27.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except [she] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; [she] can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, [and] can occasionally crawl; [she] must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, wet or humid environments, and hazardous environments, [she] is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks that are simple unskilled work that requires only occasional changes in the work setting, and [she] is limited to occasional interaction with the public and co-workers with no crowd contact.

(Id. at 27-28.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 31.) At step five, however, the ALJ concluded that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Id.)

         On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred: (1) at step two by not finding Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney stones severe; and (2) at step three by finding that Plaintiff's schizoaffective disorder did not meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment. (Doc. 14.) The Court addresses each in turn.

         I. The ALJ Erred at Step Two

         The step two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987). Agency regulations provide that “[a]n impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit a claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Basic work activities are “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs, ” including: (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, and carrying; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b). “[A]n ALJ may find that a claimant lacks a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments only when his conclusion is ‘clearly established by medical evidence.'” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005). The Court therefore must determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that the medical evidence clearly established that Plaintiff did not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id.

         A. ...


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