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Aponte v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 8, 2018

Jessie M. Aponte, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Jessie M. Aponte seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied him disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because Plaintiff has not shown that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision is unsupported by substantial evidence or based on reversible legal error, the Court will affirm.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 40 year old male who previously worked as a janitor, cashier, and laborer at a concrete plant. A.R. 31, 389. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on June 11, 2012, alleging disability beginning on March 15, 2012. A.R. 378-95. On November 19, 2015, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 43-84. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On January 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 19-32. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. A.R. 1-3.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The 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). 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. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” 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) (citations omitted). Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id.

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         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). 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) he is not currently working, (2) he has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents his performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets his burden through step three, the Commissioner must find him disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that he is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2012. A.R. 21. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder NOS, panic disorder with agoraphobia, shoulder/hand arthralgia, and chronic pain syndrome. Id. The ALJ acknowledged that the record contained evidence of acute facial fractures, sciatica, rhinitis, skin rash, enlarged thyroid, headaches, lumbar spondylosis, and abdominal pain NOS, but found that these are not severe impairments. A.R. 21-22. 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. 22-23. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium work with some additional limitations, and that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a janitor. A.R. 24-32.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) rejecting his treating psychiatrist's opinion, (2) affording great weight to a consulting examiner's opinion but failing to include his opined limitations in the RFC analysis, and (3) finding moderate concentration limitations at step two but defining his RFC to include an ability to carry out simple instructions and tasks. Doc. 9 at 5-20.

         A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.

         1. Legal Standard.

         The Commissioner is responsible for determining whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of disability, and need not credit a physician's conclusion that the claimant is “disabled” or “unable to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). But the Commissioner generally must defer to a physician's medical opinion, such as statements concerning the nature or severity of the claimant's ...

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