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Post-Michalak v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 29, 2017

Emilie Post-Michalak, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.)

         On 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.

         BACKGROUND

         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 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.

         At step 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 tasks.

(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.)

         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, 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

         Plaintiff 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.

         Having 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 ...


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