United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge.
Dessie Bridges seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security,
which denied her disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under §§ 216(i),
223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. The
Court finds that the administrative law judge's
(“ALJ”) decision is based on reversible legal
error, and will remand for further proceedings.
is a 53 year old female who previously worked as an
administrative aide, home health aide, and
caregiver-companion. A.R. 33, 160. Plaintiff applied for
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income in April 2013, alleging disability beginning on April
29, 2012. A.R. 23. On April 6, 2016, Plaintiff testified at a
hearing before an ALJ. Id. A vocational expert also
testified. Id. On May 11, 2016, the ALJ issued a
decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning
of the Social Security Act. A.R. 23-33. This became the
Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 13,
2017. A.R. 1-5.
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 determination only if it 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.
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. (citation 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.
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 burden is on the party claiming error
to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected
[her] substantial rights.” Ludwig v. Astrue,
681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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) she is not currently working, (2)
she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or
equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any
past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through
step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the
inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she
is incapable of performing past relevant work, the
Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is
capable of other work suitable for her RFC, age, education,
and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30,
2019, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since April 29, 2012. A.R. 25. At step two, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with stenosis;
degenerative joint disease; bilateral knee pain, status post
arthroscopy; and obesity. A.R. 26. 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. 29. At step four, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with some
additional limitations and was able to perform her past
relevant work as an administrative aide. A.R. 29, 32-33.
makes three arguments: (1) the ALJ erroneously discredited
Plaintiff's symptom testimony, (2) the ALJ erroneously
rejected a nurse practitioner's opinion, and (3) the ALJ
erroneously credited the opinions of non-examining
physicians. Doc. 12 at 9-25.
Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony.
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 symptoms alleged. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d
648, 655 (9th Cir. 2017) (citing Garrison v. Colvin,
759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014)). The claimant is not
required to show that her impairment could reasonably be
expected to cause the severity of her alleged symptoms, 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
summarized Plaintiff's alleged symptoms: (1) constant low
back and knee pain that limits her ability to sit, stand,
walk, squat, bend, kneel, climb stairs, and complete chores;
(2) impaired concentration that impedes her ability to follow
instructions; (3) panic attacks; (4) depression; and (5) the
need to “lie down more than once [per] day for one to
two hours.” A.R. 30. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's
medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that
Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not
entirely consistent with the medical evidence. A.R. 31. The
ALJ explained: “To some extent, the alleged severity of
the claimant's pain and limitations were less than
consistent with her reported daily activities, her recent
work history, and her treatment records.” A.R. 31.
Plaintiff disputes each of these three reasons.