United States District Court, D. Arizona
S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge
before the Court is Plaintiff Tammy Renee Akers'
(“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security
Administration's (“Social Security”) denial
of her claim for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. The Court has jurisdiction to
decide Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g), 1383(c). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
the Court has the power to enter, based upon the pleadings
and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security, with or without remanding the case for a
rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise of
U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 11).
reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and
the parties' briefing (Docs. 14, 15, 16), the Court finds
that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”)
decision contains harmful legal error. For the reasons
explained in Section II below, the decision is reversed and
the case is remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security
for further proceedings.
Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation
Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for
disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed
to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical
or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). The Act
also provides for Supplemental Security Income to certain
individuals who are aged 65 or older, blind, or disabled and
have limited income. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. To be eligible
for benefits based on an alleged disability, the claimant
must show that he or she suffers from a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him
or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(A)(3)(A).
The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected
to cause death or last for a continuous period of at least 12
decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits,
an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions,
which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The claimant has the
burden of proof regarding the first four steps:
Is the claimant engaged in “substantial gainful
activity”? If so, the analysis ends and disability
benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or
combination of impairments? A severe impairment is one which
significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental
ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a
severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability
benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds
to step three.
Is the impairment equivalent to one of a number of listed
impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe
as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the impairment meets
or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is
conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is
not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to
the fourth step of the analysis.
Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work
which the claimant performed in the past? If not, the
claimant is “not disabled” and disability
benefits are denied without continuing the analysis. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Otherwise, the
ALJ proceeds to the last step.
analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof
shifts to the Commissioner:
Can the claimant perform other work in the national economy
in light of his or her age, education, and work experience?
The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he or
she is unable to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Social Security is responsible for
providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists
in significant numbers in the national economy that the
claimant can do, given the claimant's residual functional
capacity, age, education, and work experience. Id.
Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's
Court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by
substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards.
Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir.
2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th
Cir. 1990). Although “substantial evidence” is
less than a preponderance, it is more than a “mere
scintilla.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v.
NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion. Id.
determining whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts
from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater,
157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Tylitzki v.
Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there
is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's
determination, the Court cannot substitute its own
determination. See Morgan v. Comm'r of the Social
Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)
(“Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that
must be upheld.”); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ, not