United States District Court, D. Arizona
Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge
Margaret Stommes applied for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) benefits in March 2013 alleging
disability beginning March 18, 2013 due to epilepsy, a
neurocognitive disorder, degenerative disc disease of the
cervical and lumbar spine, depression, and anxiety. After
state agency denials, Stommes appeared for a hearing and
testified before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). A vocational expert also testified. The
ALJ then ordered a consultative mental evaluation and, in
August 2015, a supplemental hearing was held during which
Stommes, a medical expert, and a vocational expert testified.
Following this supplemental hearing, the ALJ issued a
decision that Stommes was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act (“SSA”), which became the
final decision of Defendant the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (“Commissioner”) when the
agency's Appeals Council denied review. Stommes now
appeals the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). For the following reasons, the Court affirms.
Overview of the Administrative Process
determine whether a claimant is disabled, 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. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i). 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). 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. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and
the inquiry ends. 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. If not, the claimant is
The ALJ's Decision
one, the ALJ determined that Stommes meets the insured status
requirements of the SSA through December 31, 2012, and has
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged
disability onset date. (A.R. 16.) The ALJ found at step two
that Stommes' seizure disorder, neurological disorder not
otherwise specified, degenerative disc disease, and
depression are severe impairments, but concluded at step
three that they do not meet or medically equal the severity
of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 16-20.) At step four, the
ALJ determined that Stommes has the RFC:
to perform light work . . . except she is limited to work
that is simple and repetitive and does not involve customer
service. She needs to avoid exposure to hazards, including
height. She must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors,
dust, and gases.
at 20.) The ALJ found that Stommes cannot perform her past
relevant work as a housekeeper, mail handler, and preparation
cook, but that she can perform other jobs that exist in the
national economy based on her age, education, work
experience, and RFC. (Id. at 25-26.) Accordingly,
the ALJ found Stommes not disabled within the meaning of the
Standard of Review
appeal, the district court does not review the ALJ's
decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant
is disabled. Instead, the court reviews only those issues
raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision and
reverses only if the decision is not supported by substantial
evidence or is based on harmful legal error. Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Lewis v.
Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001).
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. Orn, 495 F.3d at 630.
“Where 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.
raises four issues on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ
erred by not incorporating into the RFC the findings of Drs.
Joanna Krabbenhoft and Kent Layton regarding Stommes'
memory limitations, despite assigning these physicians'
opinions great weight. Second, Stommes contends that the ALJ
erred at step three by not comparing the medical record with
the requirements of Listing 1.04A. Third, she contends that
the ALJ improperly discounted her symptom testimony. Finally,
Stommes argues that the ALJ improperly rejected all
third-party evidence. (Doc. 12 at 1-2.) The Court addresses
each in turn.
claims that the ALJ's RFC determination is erroneous
because it does not account for (1) the memory limitations
assessed by Drs. Krabbenhoft and Layton, (2) any limitations
related to Stommes' non-severe impairments, and (3)
Stommes' moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, and pace. (Doc. 12 at 15.) The Commissioner
argues that the RFC adequately accounts for these limitations
by limiting Stommes “to work ...