United States District Court, D. Arizona
L. D. Meabon, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge.
Plaintiff L.D. Meabon seeks review under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of
the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court
will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand the
matter for further administrative proceedings.
is a 43 year-old woman with a high-school education and an
Associate of Arts degree in television broadcasting. A.R. 78.
Plaintiff previously worked as a human resources manager and
personal assistant. A.R. 85-85. Plaintiff applied for
disability benefits on January 9, 2014, alleging disability
beginning October 31, 2013. A.R. 169. On June 14, 2016,
Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared
and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 52-119. On
April 7, 2017, Plaintiff, a VE, and a medical expert
(“ME”) appeared before the ALJ at a supplemental
hearing. A.R. 120-66. On May 23, 2017, the ALJ issued a
partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act from October
31, 2013 through November 30, 2014. A.R. 26-42. But the ALJ
found that Plaintiff's disability ceased as of December
1, 2014, based on medical improvement. A.R. 31. The ALJ's
decision became the Commissioner's final decision when
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review
on February 7, 2018. A.R. 1-4.
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
The ALJ's Sequential 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). At the first step, the ALJ
determines whether the claimant is 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. § 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. pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled.
Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step
four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the
claimant is capable of performing past relevant work. §
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 based on the
claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not
disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2013, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 31, 2013. A.R. 35. At step two, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments
from October 31, 2013 through November 30, 2014:
schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders.
Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
did have an impairment or combination of impairments that
meets or medically equals a listed impairment, and that
Plaintiff's substance use disorder was not a contributing
factor material to the determination of her disability. A.R.
Continuation of Disability.
found that Plaintiff was able to function without a
considerable impairment as of December 1, 2014, due to
medical improvement. A.R. 38. Once an ALJ finds a claimant
disabled, the ALJ follows an eight-step sequential evaluation
process to determine whether a claimant's disability
continues through the date of the decision. See 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)-(8). The ALJ determines whether:
(1) the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity,
(2) the claimant has an impairment or combination of
impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of a
listed impairment, (3) medical improvement has occurred, (4)
medical improvement is related to ability to work, (5) an
exception to medical improvement applies, and whether (6) all
the claimant's current combined impairments are severe.
Then the ALJ assesses (7) the claimant's RFC based on
current impairments and determines whether she can perform
past relevant work, and (8) whether the claimant can perform
other work that is suitable for her RFC, age, education, and
work experience. Id.
followed this sequential process and found, at step one, that
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since she became disabled on October 31, 2013. A.R. 35. At
step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments beginning December 1, 2014: schizophrenia
spectrum, other psychotic disorders, and a substance
addiction disorder. A.R. 36. At step three, the ALJ found
medical improvement as of December 1, 2014. A.R. 38. At step
four, the ALJ found that the medical improvement was related
to Plaintiff's ability to work. Id. The ALJ did
not address step five given his findings at steps three and
four that Plaintiff's medical condition had improved and
the improvement was related to ability to work. See
20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5). At step six, the ALJ found
that beginning December 1, 2014, Plaintiff had no current,
severe combined impairments. A.R. 37. Under steps seven and
eight, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform
past relevant work (A.R. 40), but that she could perform a
full range of work at all exertional levels that exists in
the national economy, with the following non-exertional
limitations. Plaintiff is limited to simple, repetitive
tasks, but cannot perform such tasks in a fast-paced
production environment; she is limited to only occasional
interactions with co-workers and supervisors, and only brief,
intermittent and superficial public contact; she can
concentrate in two hour blocks of time throughout an 8-hour
workday, with two 10 to 15 minute breaks, and a 30 to 60
minute lunch period (A.R. 38-40). The ALJ determined that
Plaintiff had an RFC to work as a laundry worker, domestic
maid, and industrial cleaner or night janitor. A.R. 41.
her arguments are not entirely clear, Plaintiff seems to
state three reasons why the ALJ's decision is defective:
(1) Plaintiff was diagnosed by her psychiatrist on May 13,
2016 with depersonalization disorder, after the date that the
ALJ found medical improvement (Doc. 11 at 3); (2) the
ALJ's finding of medical improvement is incorrect because
Plaintiff continued to experience delusions after December 1,
2014 (id.); and (3) various mental health issues
continue to prevent her from working (id. at
Court reads Plaintiff's arguments as challenging the
ALJ's interpretation of the medical evidence and
disputing that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
decision. Plaintiff specifically challenges the ALJ's
crediting of the testimony by the ME, Dr. Kivowitz, finding
medical improvement. Doc. 11 at 3; A.R. 1213.