United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. CAMPBELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Kathleen Ammond seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security,
which denied her disability insurance benefits under
§§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.
The parties agree that the ALJ's decision contains
reversible error. The Commissioner asks the Court to remand
for further proceedings (Doc. 17), while Plaintiff asks the
Court to remand for an award of benefits (Docs. 13, 18).
Because further administrative proceedings would serve no
useful purpose and there are no substantial grounds for
doubting that Plaintiff is disabled, the Court will reverse
and remand for an award of benefits.
is a 59 year-old female who previously worked as a medical
record clerk and front office clerk or receptionist. A.R. 69,
277. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on
September 17, 2010, alleging disability beginning on December
5, 2008. A.R. 277-83. On July 26, 2012, the ALJ denied
Plaintiff's application after holding a hearing. A.R.
165-73. On November 26, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the
decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. A.R.
180-83. On November 25, 2014, the same ALJ held a second
hearing at which Plaintiff again testified. A.R. 38-93. A
vocational expert also testified. Id. On May 4,
2015, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R.
12-26. This became the Commissioner's final decision when
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review
on September 8, 2016. A.R. 1-5.
Court reviews only those issues raised by the party
challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v.
Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court
may set aside the determination only if it is not supported
by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn
v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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). The claimant bears the burden of
proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180
F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the
claimant must show that (1) she is not currently working, (2)
she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or
equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any
past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through
step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the
inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she
is incapable of performing past relevant work, the
Commissioner must show in the fifth step that the claimant
nonetheless is capable of other work suitable for her RFC,
age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2014, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since December 5, 2008. A.R. 15. At step two, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity,
fibromyalgia, osteopenia, lumbar spondylosis, and bilateral
knee impairment. A.R. 15-18. The ALJ acknowledged that the
record contained evidence of anemia, hypertension, right
trochanteric bursitis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and
mood disorder, but found that these are not severe
impairments. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals a listed
impairment. A.R. 18. At step four, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with some
additional limitations, and that Plaintiff is able to perform
her past relevant work as a medical front office
clerk/receptionist. A.R. 26.
argues that the ALJ's decision is based on legal error
and is not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 13 at 4.
Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by
rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony and the opinions
of three treating doctors, an examining doctor, and a
non-examining psychologist - evidence primarily related to
her mental impairments. Id. Defendant concedes that
the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's mental
impairments are not severe. Doc. 17 at 4. The ALJ rejected
the opinion of an examining psychologist, Dr. Brent Geary,
because Plaintiff was not being treated for her mental health
impairments. A.R. 17. Defendant concedes, and the Court
agrees, that this was error because Plaintiff testified that
she had gaps in insurance coverage and could not afford
treatment. Doc. 17 at 4-5. Plaintiff argues that, crediting
Dr. Geary's opinion as true, the Court must remand for an
award of benefits. Doc. 18 at 3.
an ALJ fails to provide adequate reasons for rejecting
evidence of a claimant's disability, the Court must
credit that evidence as true. Lester v. Chater, 81
F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995). An action should be remanded
for an immediate award of benefits when: (1) the record has
been fully developed and further administrative proceedings
would serve no useful purpose; (2) the ALJ has failed to
provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence,
whether claimant testimony or medical opinion; and (3) the
ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled if the
improperly discredited evidence were credited as true.
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1020 (9th Cir.
2014) (internal citations omitted). But courts may
“remand for further proceedings when, even though all
conditions of the credit-as-true rule are satisfied, an
evaluation of the record as a whole creates serious doubt
that a claimant is, in fact, disabled.” Id.
argues that further proceedings are necessary to re-evaluate
Plaintiff's RFC and ability to perform past or other work
considering her severe mental impairments. Doc. 17 at 4-6.
But the record is fully developed on this issue. Dr. Geary
opined that Plaintiff is severely limited in her ability to
respond to customary work pressures, and moderately limited
in her ability to perform simple tasks. A.R. 1138.
“Severe” is defined as off-task greater than 21%
of an eight-hour work day. A.R. 1139. “Moderate”
is defined as off-task 11% to 15% of an eight-hour work day.
Id. At Plaintiff's second hearing before the
ALJ, Plaintiff's attorney posed the following
hypothetical to the vocational expert:
[Attorney]: Next I'd like you to assume the following:
let's assume an individual suffered from a moderately
severe restriction in the ability to respond to customary
work pressures and a moderate ...