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Castro v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 31, 2019

Veronica Castro, Plaintiff,
v.
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Eileen S. Willett United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Veronica Castro's (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security Administration's (“Social Security”) denial of her applications for supplemental security income and surviving child's insurance benefits. 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. 13).

         After reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and the parties' briefing (Docs. 19, 23, 24), 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 an immediate award of benefits effective October 1, 2010 (the disability onset date).

         I. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation

         The Social Security Act 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 months. Id.

         The Social Security Act also provides disabled child's insurance benefits based on the earnings record of an insured person who is entitled to old-age or disability benefits or has died. 42 U.S.C. § 402(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a). The same definition of “disability” and five-step sequential evaluation outlined below governs eligibility for disabled child's insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2). In addition, in order to qualify for disabled child's insurance benefits several criteria must be met. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(1)-(5). For instance, if the claimant is over 18, the claimant must “have a disability that began before [she] became 22 years old.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(5).

         To decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security disability 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:[1]

         Step One

         : 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.

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.
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.
Step Four: 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.

         If the analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner:[2]

Step Five: 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.

         B. Standard of Review Applicable to ALJ's Determination

          The 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 ...


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