United States District Court, D. Arizona
Marvin T. Cook, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
Honorable G. Murray Snow Judge
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
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
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).
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).
evaluating whether Mr. Cook was disabled, the ALJ undertook
the five-step sequential evaluation for determining
disability. (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).
point, the ALJ reached step four and determined Mr.
Cook's residual functional capacity (“RFC”),
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).
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).
Standard of Review
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).
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).
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).