United States District Court, D. Arizona
before the Court is Plaintiff Josephine Hofberger's
(“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Acting Social
Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”)
denial of her application for a period of disability under
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416(i) (2012).
(Doc. 1). Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) erred in improperly assessing the
credibility of Plaintiff's allegations, improperly
rejecting the opinion of a treating physician, and
misidentifying Plaintiff's severe medical impairments.
(Doc. 23 at 1-2). Additionally, Plaintiff moves to amend her
complaint to clarify the dates for which she is seeking
disability benefits. The Court now rules on Plaintiff's
appeal and Plaintiff's motion.
parties are familiar with the background information in this
case, and it is summarized in the ALJ's decision.
(See Doc. 10 at 23-34). Accordingly, the Court will
reference the background only as necessary to the decision
ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned
“only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or
it is based on legal error.” Magallanes v.
Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (citations
omitted). “Substantial evidence” means
“more than a mere scintilla, but less than a
preponderance.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d
715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). In other words, substantial
evidence means “relevant evidence which a reasonable
person might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's]
inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields
such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the
conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v.
Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984). In
determining whether there is substantial evidence to support
a decision, the Court weighs “both the evidence that
supports and [that which] detracts from the ALJ's
conclusion.” Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750
(citations omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible of
more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's
conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his
findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically
flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d
at 1453 (internal citations omitted). “The trier of
fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in
the 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).
is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony,
determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial
evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and the
decision is free from legal error, the Court must affirm it.
See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir.
1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). The
Court, however, “may not affirm simply by isolating a
specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted).
Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making
its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not
disabled; rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to
the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon
in support of those reasons. See Connett v.
Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).
Definition of Disability
qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security
Act, a claimant must be “under a disability.” 42
U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E) (2012). The Social Security Act
defines “disability” as the “inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).
person is “under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that
[she] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The Five-Step Evaluation Process
evaluate a claim of disability, the Social Security
regulations set forth a five-step sequential process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (2016); see also
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. A finding of “not
disabled” at any step in the sequential process will
end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four
steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner in the final
step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.
one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is “doing
substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
Id. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the
inquiry moves to step two, at which the ALJ determines
whether the claimant has a “severe medically
determinable physical or mental impairment.”
Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered
severe, the impairment must “significantly limit [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities, ” id. § 404.1520(c), and
must either have lasted for “a continuous period of at
least twelve months, ” be expected to last for such a
period, or be expected “to result in death, ”
id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in
Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). If the claimant does
not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not
disabled. Id. If, however, the ALJ finds a severe
impairment, the inquiry moves to step three, which requires
determining whether the impairment “meets or
equals” one of the impairments listed in the
regulations. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so,
the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry.
Id. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the
ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's
“residual functional capacity based on all the relevant
medical and other evidence in [the] case record.”
Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's
“residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”) is the most she can still do despite all
her impairments, including those that are not severe, and any
related symptoms. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step
four the ALJ determines whether, based on the RFC assessment,
the claimant can still perform “past relevant
work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the
claimant can still perform her past relevant work, the
claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ
proceeds to the fifth and final step, at which the ALJ
determines whether the claimant, based on the RFC assessment
and her “age, education, and work experience, ”
can make an adjustment to other work that exists in the
national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If
the claimant can perform other work, she is not disabled.
Id. If the claimant cannot perform other work, she
will be found disabled. Id.
evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step
process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case
record. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(3).
The ALJ's Evaluation Under the Five-Step Process
found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since June 26, 2013 (the alleged onset date), and
had two severe impairments,  satisfying the first and second
steps of the inquiry. (Doc. 10-3 at 16, 18-22). Under step
three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled any of the listed impairments in the Social
Security regulations that automatically result in a finding
of disability. (Id. at 22).
moving to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC determination
in light of proffered testimony and objective medical
evidence. (Id. at 23-32). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to
perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
416.967(b)” with certain exceptions. (Id. at
four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any
past relevant work. (Id. at 32-33). At step five,
the ALJ determined that, based on the RFC assessment and
Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, “there
are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” (Id. at
33-34). Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not
disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id. at 34).
asserts that the ALJ erred in denying her benefits for three
reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly assessed the credibility of
Plaintiff's testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected
the opinion of a treating physician; and (3) the ALJ
misidentified Plaintiff's severe medical impairments.
(Doc. 23 at 1-2). The Court will address each argument in
Whether the ALJ Improperly Discredited Plaintiff's
Court first turns to Plaintiff's argument that “the
ALJ erred by failing to provide clear and convincing reasons
for discrediting the claimant's testimony, ” (Doc.
11 at 19), when the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's
testimony was “not entirely credible, ” (Doc.
10-3 at 25).
assessing the credibility of a claimant's testimony
regarding subjective pain or the intensity of symptoms, the
ALJ engages in a two-step analysis.” Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012). 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.” Lingenfelter v.
Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted). “The claimant,
however, need not 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.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The ALJ,
therefore, cannot reject a claimant's subjective symptom
testimony “simply because there is no showing that the
impairment can reasonably produce the degree of
symptom alleged.” Id. (internal quotation
marks and citations omitted) (emphasis in original).
if the claimant meets this first test, 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.” Id. (internal quotation marks and
citations omitted). “The clear and convincing standard
is the most demanding required in Social Security
cases.” Moore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002). Accordingly,
“[g]eneral findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ
must identify what testimony is not credible and what
evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.”
Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995).
may consider, among other factors: “[a claimant's]
reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies either in [her]
testimony or between [her] testimony and [her] conduct, [her]
daily activities, [her] work record, and testimony from
physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity,
and effect of the symptoms of which [she] complains.”
Light v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th
Cir. 1997). “If the ALJ's credibility finding is
supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the Court]
may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas v.
Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).
present case, there is no dispute that Plaintiff “has
presented objective medical evidence of an underlying
impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the
pain or other symptoms alleged, ” fulfilling step one
of the credibility analysis. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d
at 1036; (Doc. 19 at 6). It is also undisputed that there is
no affirmative evidence of malingering. (Doc. 19 at 6). The
ALJ, therefore, was required provide “specific, clear
and convincing reasons” for rejecting Plaintiff's
testimony about the severity of her symptoms.
Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036.
argues that the ALJ's credibility analysis is not
supported by clear and convincing reasons. (Doc. 11 at 19).
Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her
analysis of Plaintiff's medical evidence, her work
activity, and her statements and ...