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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 31, 2018

Marvin T. Cook, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Marvin T. Cook's appeal of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny disability benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 1). For the reasons set forth below, the Court vacates the ALJ's decision to deny benefits and remands for additional proceedings.


         In 1989, Mr. Marvin T. Cook was serving as a marine when his helicopter crashed in the South China Sea. (Tr. 1134). Fourteen people died in the crash, and only eight individuals survived. (Tr. 1134). As a result of the crash, Mr. Cook suffers from knee problems, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

         After an honorable discharge from the military, Mr. Cook worked for various employers, including seven years as a technician for OK Trailers. (Tr. 1134). Most recently, Mr. Cook worked for Worldwide R.V. until 2011. (Tr. 1134). On November 16, 2011, Mr. Cook filed an application for disability benefits with an onset date of March 1, 2011. (Tr. 22). The claim was denied. (Tr. 225-34). Mr. Cook then appeared before Administrative Law Judge Paula Fow on July 15, 2013, (Tr. 110-169), who found that Mr. Cook was not disabled. (Tr. 195-212). Mr. Cook appealed, and the Social Security Administration Appeals Council remanded for a new hearing and decision. (Tr. 213-18). The Appeals Council directed ALJ Fow to allow Mr. Cook to address an additional consultative examination report, obtain additional evidence, consider the treating opinion of Dr. Spencer Beck, and expand the record if warranted. (Tr. 216). ALJ Fow held a second hearing on March 30, 2016. (Tr. 46-109).

         At the second hearing, Mr. Cook described that he lost his job as an R.V. technician in 2011 because the company hired a replacement, and not because his disability precluded him from doing his job. (Tr. 53). Mr. Cook also described that he diligently tried to find other work, but “it was impossible” because no jobs were available, “especially in the R.V. field.” (Tr. 53). He searched for work while he collected unemployment benefits, and he “just looked for just whatever [he] could do” such as “[s]weep floors.” (Tr. 56). Then, in 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) increased Mr. Cook's PTSD disability rating and increased his monthly payments. (Tr. 58-59).

         In evaluating whether Mr. Cook was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 23-24). At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Cook had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 24). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Cook suffered from the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse in sustained remission, borderline personality disorder, and left knee impairment. (Tr. 25). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Tr. 25).

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and determined Mr. Cook's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] concluding that Mr. Cook could perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), with the exception that he could only occasionally kneel and crouch and “would be limited to occupations requiring no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks not performed in a fast-paced production environment and which require no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and members of the public.” (Tr. 27). The ALJ also found that Mr. Cook's RFC prohibited him from performing his past relevant work as an R.V. technician. (Tr. 36-37). However, the ALJ found that Mr. Cook's RFC allowed him to work in various other jobs in the national economy, including as a janitor, laundry worker, or cook helper. (Tr. 37-38). As part of her conclusion, the ALJ assigned little weight to the opinion of Mr. Cook's VA treating physicians, (Tr. 34-36); discredited Mr. Cook's subjective testimony as inconsistent with the evidence in the record, (Tr. 28); and assigned minimal weight to the VA's finding that Mr. Cook is disabled, (Tr. 36).

         The Appeals Council denied review of this decision on January 10, 2017. (Tr. 1- 6). Mr. Cook filed a complaint in Federal Court on March 7, 2017. (Doc. 1).


         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). “When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because “[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in 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) (citations omitted). A reviewing court may draw specific and legitimate inferences from an ALJ's decision, but it cannot speculate on the ALJ's reasoning or make “post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 1219, 1225 (9th Cir. 2009).

         II. Analysis

         Mr. Cook argues the ALJ (a) did not properly weigh the medical opinion evidence; (b) erroneously discredited Mr. Cook's subjective testimony; and (c) did not properly consider the VA's disability determination. (Doc. 16).

         A. Medical ...

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