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Solis v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 28, 2019

Silvia Esperanza Solis, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Silvia Esperanza Solis's Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 12, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 19, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 20, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 11, R.) and now reverses the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) as upheld by the Appeals Council.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application for Disability Insurance Benefits on August 15, 2012, and her Application for Supplemental Security Income on August 22, 2012, both for a period of disability beginning April 30, 2010. (R. at 13.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on November 7, 2012, and upon reconsideration on March 19, 2014. (R. at 13.)

         Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an ALJ on September 22, 2015. (R. at 35- 78.) On November 18, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 13-25.) On November 16, 2016, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-3.) The present appeal followed.

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of obesity and depressive disorder (R. at 15), but that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past work as a Certified Nursing Assistant (“CNA”), such that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. (R. at 18-25.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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. 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but 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 presently 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 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 in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises four arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff has the RFC for simple work but can perform semi-skilled work, which is inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); (2) the ALJ erred by failing to incorporate into Plaintiff's RFC physical and mental limitations identified by Plaintiff's examining physician and the reviewing physicians; (3) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's testimony was not entirely credible; and (4) the ALJ erred in rejecting the lay witness testimony of Plaintiff's sister. (Pl.'s Br. at 15-25.)

         A. The ALJ Failed to Reconcile the Inconsistency Between Plaintiff's RFC and the DOT Classification of Plaintiff's Past Work

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by concluding that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a CNA, which requires a DOT General Educational Development (“GED”) reasoning level of three-the ability to apply “commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or diagrammatic form [and] [d]eal with problems involving several concrete variables in or from standardized situations.” (Pl.'s Br. at 17 (internal quotations omitted).) This conclusion was inconsistent with the ALJ's finding-based on the ALJ's reliance on the medical opinion of Dr. Littlefield, an examining psychologist-that Plaintiff's RFC limited her “to simple, repetitive tasks, which by definition means that she has difficulty understanding or remembering detailed instructions.” (Pl.'s Br. at 17 (internal quotations omitted).) In other words, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform a DOT GED reasoning level three job when the ALJ's RFC limited Plaintiff to a GED reasoning level one or two job. See Meissl v. Barnhart, 403 F.Supp.2d 981, 983 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (noting “the one vocational consideration directly on point with [a limitation to simple repetitive tasks] is a job's reasoning level score”). The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in concluding that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a CNA, which requires a higher GED reasoning level than that the ALJ herself assigned to Plaintiff based on substantial evidence in the record. For this reason alone, the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision.

         B. The ALJ Erred in Failing to Incorporate the Findings of ...


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