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Simser v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 13, 2018

Phillip Simser, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Phillip Simser seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied him child's disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 202(d), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) opinion contains reversible error and each of the credit-as-true requirements is met, the Court will remand for an award of benefits.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 40 year old male who has never worked. A.R. 49, 182. On December 18, 2013, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning December 12, 2013. A.R. 182-90. On January 31, 2014, Plaintiff applied for child's disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning October 19, 1993. A.R. 193-96. On March 24, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. A.R. 38-55. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On April 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 20-30. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review on July 19, 2017. A.R. 1-5.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id.

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the Court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) he is not currently working, (2) he has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents his performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets his burden through step three, the Commissioner must find him disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that he is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not reached the age of 22 as of December 15, 1995, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since that date. A.R. 22.[1] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, cervical spondylosis, osteoporosis, and adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood. A.R. 22. The ALJ acknowledged that the record contained evidence of hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, and obesity, but found that these were not severe impairments. A.R. 23. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. A.R. 23-25. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light, unskilled work, and Plaintiff had no past relevant work. A.R. 25-29. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he was able to perform occupations like housekeeping cleaner, fast food worker, and cashier. A.R. 29-30.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by rejecting his symptom testimony and the opinions of his primary care physician, Dr. Jay Long, and rheumatologist, Dr. Ravi Bhalla. Doc. 14. Plaintiff's arguments focus on the ALJ's rejection of his physical limitations. Id. at 4 n.5.

         A. Symptom Testimony.

         In evaluating a claimant's symptom testimony, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014). The claimant is not required to show that his impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptoms he has alleged, only that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptoms. Id. Second, if there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ may reject the claimant's symptom testimony only by giving specific, clear, and convincing reasons. Id. at 1015. ‚ÄúThis is not an easy requirement to ...


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