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Stommes v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 29, 2018

Margaret Rose Stommes, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Overview of the Administrative Process

         To 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 disabled.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         At step 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.

         (Id. 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 SSA.

         III. Standard of Review

         On 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.

         IV. Discussion

         Stommes 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.

         A. RFC Finding

         Stommes 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 ...


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