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Munoz v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 11, 2019

Irene Constance Munoz, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Bernardo P. Velasco, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Irene Munoz filed the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Magistrate Judge has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to the parties' consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 16.) The matter is now fully briefed. (Docs. 18-20.) For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Procedural History

         On November 11, 2014, Plaintiff filed a protective application for disability and disability insurance benefits (Administrative Record (“AR”) 171). Plaintiff alleged disability as of January 6, 2010 due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, aortic valve insufficiency, asthma, high blood pressure, and obesity. (AR 16.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on May 3, 2015 (AR 76-89), and upon reconsideration on June 19, 2015 (AR 91-111).

         After requesting a hearing, on March 8, 2017 Plaintiff testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (AR 16). At the hearing, Plaintiff adjusted the alleged onset date to July 15, 2011 (AR 51), and the ALJ admitted into the administrative record additional, but untimely, medical evidence (AR 16). Nonetheless, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 17, 2017. (AR 16-33.) The Appeals Counsel denied Plaintiff's Request for Review on December 18, 2017 (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for the purposes of review.

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on February 8, 2018. Plaintiff first claims that the ALJ legally erred because she did not consider Plaintiff's mental impairments severe at Step Two, and this error was not harmless because the subsequent Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) did not account for the limiting effects of Plaintiff's mental impairments. (Doc. 19 at 12.) Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ did not properly analyze the opinions of consultative physician Dr. Noelle Rohen, Ph.D and treating Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Pierce. Id. at 21-25.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court has the “power to enter, upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The factual findings of the Commissioner shall be conclusive so long as the findings are based upon substantial evidence and there is no legal error. 42 U.S.C.§§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but not necessarily a preponderance.” Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1038 (quoting Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003)). Further, substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Where “the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)). Moreover, the Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, resolve material conflicts in the evidence, and determine the case accordingly. Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. However, the Commissioner's decision “cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. . . . Rather, the Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098 (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         If the district court determines that the ALJ committed legal error, it must then consider whether the error was harmless. Treichler v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th Cir. 2014). Harmless error occurs “when it is clear from the record the ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Garcia v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 932 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         III. Summary of ALJ's Findings

         The burden of demonstrating disability lies with a claimant. Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). To do so, a claimant must show that a physical or mental impairment precludes substantial gainful activity, and it is anticipated that this impairment will either result in death or last continuously for at least a year. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1).

         An ALJ determines whether a claimant is disabled through a five-step sequential evaluation. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A claimant must establish: (1) she has not performed substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date (“Step One”); (2) she has a severe impairment(s) (“Step Two”); and (3) her impairment(s) meets or equals the listed impairment(s) (“Step Three”). Id. “If the claimant satisfies these three steps, then the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. If the claimant has a severe impairment that does not meet or equal the severity of one of the ailments listed[, ] . . . the ALJ then proceeds to Step Four, which requires the ALJ to determine the claimant's [RFC].” Dominguez v. Colvin, 808 F.3d 403, 405 (9th Cir. 2015). “After developing the RFC, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work.” Id. Then, at Step Five, “the government has the burden of showing that the claimant could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         In this case, at Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from July 5, 2011 until her last insured date of December 16, 2016. (AR 19.)

         At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe physical impairments, including: disease of the aortic valve; obesity; muscle, ligament, and facial disorder; and asthma. Id. However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe. Id.

         Then, the ALJ decided at Step Three that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the listed impairments-either singularly or in combination. (AR 26.)

         At Step Four, the ALJ stated that given the limiting effects of her ailments, Plaintiff's RFC allowed work with a medium exertional level and some physical limitations. (AR 26-27.) Based on this assessment, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work in food service or as a day care worker. (AR 32.)

         The ALJ never reached Step Five. Rather, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled at Step Four, and stated that in “comparing the claimant's [RFC] with the physical and mental demands of this work, I find that the claimant was able to perform [past relevant work] as generally performed [in the national economy].” Id.

         IV. Plaintiff's Background and ...

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