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Lam v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 19, 2018

Brenda Joy Lam, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi United States District Judge.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Brenda Joy Lam's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Amended Opening Brief (Doc. 16, Pl's Br.) and Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 18, Def's Br.). Plaintiff filed no Reply. The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 12, R.) and reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 20-31) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-4).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application on May 13, 2013, for a period of disability beginning February 9, 2012. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on November 6, 2013, and on reconsideration on January 24, 2014. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on November 17, 2015. (R. at 30.) On March 1, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 20- 31.) On May 4, 2017, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-4.)

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical record and opinions, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of right knee dysfunction/osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and obesity. (R. at 22.) The ALJ concluded that Plainitff does not have the residual function capacity to perform her past relevant work, but relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of light work including work as an assembler, office helper, and interviewer. (R. at 30.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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. 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises a single argument for the Court's consideration: that the ALJ erred by failing to give specific, clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole for discounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl's Br. at 5-12.)

         A. The ALJ Failed to Give Sufficient Reasons to Discount Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         In the Ninth Circuit, the evaluation of a claimant's symptom testimony has two steps:

First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged. In this analysis, the claimant is not required to show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptom she has alleged; she need only show that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptom. Nor must a claimant produce medical evidence of the pain or fatigue itself, or the severity thereof.
If the claimant satisfies the first step of this analysis, and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so. That is not an easy requirement to meet: The clear and ...

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