United States District Court, D. Arizona
Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge
applied for a period of disability and disability insurance
benefits on July 12, 2012, alleging disability beginning
August 1, 2010. (A.R. 13.) The claim was denied initially on
February 26, 2013, and upon reconsideration on August 5,
2013. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing.
(Id.) On September 10, 2014, Plaintiff and a
vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 31-60.) At
the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to September 1,
2011. (Id. at 34.)
November 4, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act. (Id. at 25.) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested
review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council.
(Id. at 7-9.) The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's
decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Id.
at 1.) On April 26, 2016, Plaintiff sought review by this
Court. (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record
(Doc. 12), the parties fully briefed the issues for review
(Docs. 15, 19, 27). For reasons stated below, the Court finds
that Commissioner's decision must be reversed and the
case remanded for an award of benefits.
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 she 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.
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since September 1, 2011. (A.R. 15.) At step two, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe
impairments: fibromyalgia, obesity, chronic anemia, asthma,
affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and learning.
(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 step four, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff:
has the [RFC] to perform light work … except [she] can
do occasional postural activities, i.e., climbing, balancing,
stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; [she can] have
occasional exposure to extreme cold, fumes, odors, dusts, and
gases; and [she can] perform simple, routine, and repetitive
(Id. at 17.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is
capable of performing her past relevant work as a prep cook.
(Id. at 23.) Because Plaintiff was found to be
capable of performing past work experience, the ALJ found
Plaintiff not disabled, and the inquiry ended at this step.
(Id. at 23-24.)
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, 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).
challenges the ALJ's RFC finding, arguing that the ALJ
improperly weighed medical opinions and erred in rejecting
Plaintiff's and lay witness testimony. (Doc. 15 at 7-25.)
Defendant counters that the ALJ properly resolved conflicts
in the medical opinions based on substantial evidence, and
provided sufficient reasons for finding Plaintiff and lay
witnesses not credible. (Doc. 19 at 3.) The parties disagree
as to whether any remand should be for an award of benefits
or further proceedings.
reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, the Court
concludes that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr.
Michael Fairfax, Plaintiff's treating rheumatologist, and
that had the ALJ credited Dr. Fairfax's opinion she would
have been compelled to find Plaintiff disabled. Because this