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Murray v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

April 30, 2018

Adelita G Murray, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Adelita G. Murray 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 and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) 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 59 year old female who previously worked as a cashier, store laborer, and kitchen helper. A.R. 19, 58-59, 70. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in June 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2011. A.R. 10. On July 27, 2015, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 27-69. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On September 21, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 10-21. 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. 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. (citation omitted). 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). 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. “The burden is on the party claiming error to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected [her] substantial rights.” Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).

         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) 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 is capable of other work suitable for her 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 March 31, 2014, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2011. A.R. 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: history of prolapsed bladder with mixed urinary incontinence; history of breast cancer, treated without recurrence; and degenerative dis[c] disease of the lumbar spine. A.R. 13. The ALJ acknowledged that the record contained evidence of mood disorder and anxiety, but found that these are not severe impairments. A.R. 13-15. 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. 15. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with some additional limitations, but that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a kitchen helper or as a cashier and laborer at a thrift store. A.R. 15-19. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and transferrable skills, she is able to perform the requirements of occupations like cashier/checker. A.R. 19-20.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff alleges that a single error at step four caused harm at step five. Doc. 18 at 5-7.

         A. No Error at Step Four.

         The ALJ classified Plaintiff's past relevant work at a thrift store as both cashier/checker (light exertion, semiskilled) and store laborer (medium exertion, skilled). A.R. 19; see also A.R. 58. Plaintiff contends that Ninth Circuit precedent prohibits the classification of composite jobs according to the least demanding function. Doc. 18 at 6 (citing Valencia v. Heckler, 751 F.2d 1082 (9th Cir. 1985)). Because cashier/checker is less ...

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