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Barkowski v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 30, 2017

Kathryn G Barkowski, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Kathryn Barkowski applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits in February 2012, alleging disability beginning July 29, 2010. After state agency denials, Barkowski appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A vocational expert (“VE”) also was present and testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Barkowski is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision after the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Barkowski's request for review. Barkowski now seeks judicial review of that decision. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration is reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the SSA, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 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. If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. 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. If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 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. If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Barkowski meets the insured status requirements of the SSA through December 31, 2015, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 17.) The ALJ found at step two that Barkowski's rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine status post cervical fusion and hardware removal, peripheral neuropathy, right shoulder tendinitis, carpal tunnel of the right wrist, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and obesity are severe impairments, but concluded at step three that they do not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (Id. at 17-19.) At step four, the ALJ found that Barkowski has the RFC to perform:

less than the full range of light work . . . . Specifically, [Barkowski] could lift and/or carry ten pounds frequently, twenty pounds occasionally; she could sit, stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday; she could occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds and crawl; she could frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, handle and finger with the right upper extremity; and she is to avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery except motor vehicles.

(Id. at 19.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Barkowski is unable to perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 26.) At step five, however, after considering Barkowski's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (Id. at 26.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Barkowski is not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. (Id. at 27-28.)

         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, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (internal quotations and citation omitted). Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Barkowski argues that the ALJ erred by discounting her testimony concerning the severity and effects of her symptoms, and by assigning little weight to the opinions of her treating physicians, Drs. Ravi Bajpai and Jonathan Landsman. (Doc. 13.)

         I. Symptom Testimony

         Barkowski alleges disability due to rheumatoid arthritis in the hands and feet, neck pain, Raynaud's disease, and depression. (A.R. 213.) She testified that she started having memory problems after neck surgeries in 2012 and 2013, she experiences pain in her right arm, neck, and shoulder, her arthritis causes her hands to swell, and she has been falling lately because of problems with her right foot. (Id. at 46-60.) In function reports from April and October 2012, Barkowski complained of neck and lower back pain that made it difficult to lift or sit for long periods of time, sensitivity to cold temperatures in her hands and feet, restless sleep due to pain, drowsiness from medications, and difficulty remembering and concentrating. (Id. at 221-229, 239-247.)

         In evaluating a claimant's symptom testimony, the ALJ is required to engage in a two-step analysis: (1) determine whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the pain or other symptoms alleged; and, if so with no evidence of malingering, (2) reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of the symptoms only by giving specific, clear, and convincing reasons for the rejection. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). “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) (quoting Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin.,278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir.2002)). Indeed, “ALJs must be especially cautious in concluding that daily activities are ...


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