United States District Court, D. Arizona
Melissa M. Canales, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.
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.
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).
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
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).
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).
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).
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).
Definition of Disability
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).
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).
The Five-Step Process
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
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
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
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. §
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.
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
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).
The ALJ's Evaluation under the Five-Step Process
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.
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
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.
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.
Ability to Perform Past Work
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 ...