United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge.
before the Court is James Staples'
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security
Administration's (“Social Security”) denial
of his application for supplemental security income. The
Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff's appeal
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based
upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment
affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding
the case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the
exercise of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 11).
reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and
the parties' briefing (Docs. 15, 16, 17), the Court finds
that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”)
decision contains harmful legal error. For the reasons
explained herein, the decision is reversed and the case is
remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further
Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for
supplemental security income to certain individuals who are
aged 65 or older, blind, or disabled and have limited income.
42 U.S.C. § 1382. To be eligible for benefits based on
an alleged disability, the claimant must show that he or she
suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental
impairment that prohibits him or her from engaging in any
substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. §
1382c(A)(3)(A). The claimant must also show that the
impairment is expected to cause death or last for a
continuous period of at least 12 months. Id.
decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits,
an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions,
which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding
the first four steps:
Step One: Is the claimant engaged
in “substantial gainful activity”? If so, the
analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise,
the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a
medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A
severe impairment is one which significantly limits the
claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant does
not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments,
disability benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the
ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment
equivalexnt to one of a number of listed impairments that the
Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If
the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments,
the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the
impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the
ALJ proceeds to the fourth step of the analysis.
Step Four: Does the impairment
prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant
performed in the past? If not, the claimant is “not
disabled” and disability benefits are denied without
continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).
Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the last step.
analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof
shifts to the Commissioner:
Step Five: Can the claimant perform
other work in the national economy in light of his or her
age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled
to disability benefits only if he or she is unable to perform
other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). Social Security is
responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that
other work exists in significant numbers in the national
economy that the claimant can do, given the claimant's
residual functional capacity, age, education, and work
Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's
Court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by
substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards.
Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir.
2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th
Cir. 1990). Although “substantial evidence” is
less than a preponderance, it is more than a “mere
scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.
determining whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts
from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater,
157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v.
Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there
is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's
determination, the Court cannot substitute its own
determination. See Morgan v. Comm'r of the Social
Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)
(“Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that
must be upheld.”); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ, not
the Court, is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity,
and determining credibility. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at
750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039
(9th Cir. 1995).
Court also considers the harmless error doctrine when
reviewing an ALJ's decision. This doctrine provides that
an ALJ's decision need not be remanded or reversed if it
is clear from the record that the error is
“inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability
determination.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d
1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted);
Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is harmless so
long as there remains substantial evidence supporting the
ALJ's decision and the error “does not negate the
validity of the ALJ's ultimate conclusion”)
who was born in 1976, has no past relevant work. (A.R. 37,
88). On August 19, 2013, Plaintiff applied for supplemental
security income, alleging disability beginning on January 1,
1988. (A.R. 88, 197). Social Security denied the application
on December 18, 2013. (A.R. 119-22). In July 2014, upon
Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, Social Security
affirmed the denial of benefits. (A.R. 127-29). Plaintiff
sought further review by an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in
March 2016. (A.R. 49-86). In a May 20, 2016 decision, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as
defined in the Social Security Act, since August 19, 2013.
(A.R. 39). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review. (A.R. 1-8). On September 20, 2017, Plaintiff
initiated this action requesting judicial review and reversal
of the ALJ's decision.
The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step ...