United States District Court, D. Arizona
Bernardo P. Velasco, United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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
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).
Summary of ALJ's Findings
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
Plaintiff's Background and ...