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Canales v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 15, 2018

Melissa M. Canales, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Melissa M. Canales's (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”) denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33. On appeal, Plaintiff raises three claims of error: (1) the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) finding that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work was unsupported by the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ did not give adequate reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's pain and symptom testimony; and (3) the ALJ did not give adequate consideration to all of the medical opinion evidence. Plaintiff asks this Court to grant further administrative proceedings. (Doc. 21 at 3). The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born July 26, 1973. (Doc. 21 at 2); (Doc. 22 at 3). She has a high school education and completed training as a medical assistant. Id. Plaintiff's past relevant work includes: home attendant, cashier, security guard, pizza maker and store clerk. (Doc. 16-3 at 34). Plaintiff claims that she suffers from an extensive list of impairments, including: carpal tunnel in both wrists, lupus, fibromyalgia, arthritis, diabetes, neuropathy, depression, anxiety and other various issues that cause severe and chronic pain. (Doc. 21 at 2).

         On August 31, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 31, 2012. (Doc. 16-3 at 25). Plaintiff claims that she has not been able to work due to chronic pain and both physical and mental impairments. (Doc. 21 at 1). After her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, on December 11, 2014, an ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by a non-attorney representative, and from a vocational expert. Id. The ALJ issued a decision on February 3, 2015, finding Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Doc. 16-3 at 25-35). The Appeals Council denied review on June 29, 2016, making the ALJ's decision to deny benefits the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 22 at 2). This appeal followed.

         II. Legal Standard

         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). In other words, “substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion.” Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he trier of fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). On the other hand, the Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation and citation omitted).

         Finally, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. Rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied on in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). On appeal, “issues which are not specifically and distinctly argued and raised in a party's opening brief are waived.” Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Trans. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc., 228 F.3d 1105, 1110 n.1 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 535 U.S. 391 (2002)); see also Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1226 n.7 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle to Social Security appeal). The Ninth Circuit's reasoning is that courts “will not manufacture arguments for an appellant, and a bare assertion does not preserve a claim.” Arpin, 261 F.3d at 919 (internal citation omitted).

         A. Definition of Disability

         To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that, among other things, she is “under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E) (2012). The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         A person is under a disability only if that person's “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         B. The Five-Step Process

         To evaluate a claim of disability, the Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (2016); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. A finding of “not disabled” at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner in the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:

         1. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must “significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities are the “abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs, ” such as lifting, carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine. Id. § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either have lasted for “a continuous period of at least twelve months, ” be expected to last for such a period, or be expected “to result in death.” Id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The “step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not disabled.

         3. Having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) is the most she can still do despite all her impairments, including those that are not severe, and any related symptoms. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1).

         4. At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite the impairments, the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To make this determination, the ALJ compares its “residual functional capacity assessment . . . with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform the kind of work she previously did, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the final step.

         5. At the final step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work” that exists in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ considers the claimant's “residual functional capacity” and her “age, education, and work experience.” Id. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant can perform other work, she is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform other work, she will be found disabled.

         In evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case record. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(3), 404.1520b. This includes medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and third-party reporting. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529; SSR 06-3p, 71 Fed. Reg. 45593-03 (Aug. 9, 2006).

         C. The ALJ's Evaluation under the Five-Step Process

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, satisfying step one of the inquiry. (Doc. 16-3 at 26). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments including: obesity, diabetes and degenerative joint disease in the knees and shoulder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in the Social Security regulations that automatically result in a finding of disability. Id. at 28.

         Before moving on to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC determination in light of Plaintiff's testimony and objective medical evidence. Id. at 142-46. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ladders and/or scaffolds; and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and/or scaffolds. The claimant is limited in to frequent reaching overhead with the 1ight extremity.” (Doc. 16-3 at 29).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a cashier and the Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Id. at 33. Consequently, because the ALJ concluded at step four that the Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work, the ALJ did not proceed to step five. Id.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in denying her benefits for three reasons: (1) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work was unsupported by the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ did not give adequate reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's pain and symptom testimony; and (3) the ALJ did not give adequate consideration to all of the medical opinion evidence.

         A. Ability to Perform Past Work

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a cashier. (Doc. 16-3 at 33). Plaintiff argues that this finding is unsupported by ...


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