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Garcia v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 10, 2018

Jonathan Garcia, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          David G. Campbell, Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jonathan Garcia seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied him disability insurance benefits under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) opinion contains reversible error, the Court will remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 55 year old male who previously worked as an account manager, financial counselor, food preparer, lab technician, material handler, singer, and polisher. A.R. 129, 176. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on September 20, 2013, alleging disability beginning on February 19, 2013. A.R. 129-31. On May 3, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. A.R. 30-41. On August 25, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 13-23. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 14, 2017. A.R. 1-3.

         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 met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 19, 2013. A.R. 15. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus II, peripheral neuropathy, ischemic heart disease, and bilateral carpal tunnel. Id. The ALJ also noted the following medically determinable but non-severe impairments: essential hypertension, obesity, depression, and anxiety. A.R. 16-17. 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. 17. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with some additional limitations, and Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. A.R. 17-21. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, he could perform a significant numbers of jobs in the national economy. A.R. 22.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by discrediting his symptom testimony and the opinion of his treating orthopedist, Dr. Humberto Galleno. Doc. 11.

         A. Dr. Galleno.

         Dr. Galleno saw Plaintiff multiple times in 2013 to evaluate and treat pain in his right hand and wrist. A.R. 409-36; 548-75. In May 2013, Dr. Galleno diagnosed Plaintiff with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome that was greater on the right side and limited Plaintiff to lifting no more than five pounds and no repetitive grasping, gripping, or torsional movements of his right hand or wrist. A.R. 413. In September 2013, Dr. Galleno issued a final report opining that Plaintiff had “achieved maximal medical improvement” and was ...

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