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Sallee v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 19, 2019

Debra Sue Sallee, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Debra Sue Sallee (“Sallee”) seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), which denied her application for disability benefits and supplemental security income. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision was based on reversible legal error and remands for further proceedings.

         Sallee is a 50-year-old woman who previously worked as an accounts payable clerk and a customer service representative and alleges she became disabled in March 2013. In 2014, she filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income. (A.R. 198-207.) Her claims were initially denied on June 12, 2014 (A.R. 68-69) and again upon reconsideration on November 18, 2014 (A.R. 98-99). Sallee then filed a written request for a hearing on December 4, 2014. (A.R. 153-154.) On June 15, 2016, she appeared and testified at a video hearing at which an impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified. (A.R. 42-67.) On July 7, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Sallee was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R. 23-35.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Sallee's request for review on October 5, 2017. (A.R. 1-6.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court addresses only the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001), as amended on reh'g (Aug. 9, 2001). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. Put another way, “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “[w]here evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ” but the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         “[H]armless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). “[A]n ALJ's error is harmless where it is inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court must “look at the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id. Importantly, however, the Court may not uphold an ALJ's decision on a ground not actually relied on by the ALJ. Id. at 1121.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security 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, and 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 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. Id. § 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. pt. 404. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work. Id. § 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, which addresses whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         BACKGROUND

         At step one, the ALJ found that Sallee met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 8, 2013, the alleged onset date. (A.R. 25.) At step two, the ALJ found that Sallee had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder. (A.R. 26.) The ALJ also found that Sallee had the non-severe impairments of interstitial cystitis, obesity, and high blood pressure. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Sallee did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (A.R. 26-28.) At step four, the ALJ found that Sallee had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: limited to simple routine and repetitive tasks, with only occasional interaction with the public. (A.R. 28-33.) The ALJ further found that Sallee was not capable of performing any past relevant work. (A.R. 33.) At step five, the ALJ found that, considering Sallee's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Sallee can perform, including janitor and dishwasher. (A.R. 33-34.)

         Sallee argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for four reasons: (1) the ALJ erred during step four by rejecting Sallee's symptom testimony; (2) the ALJ erred during step four by assigning “great weight” to state agency consultants; (3) the ALJ erred during step two in finding Sallee's interstitial cystitis was not a severe impairment; and (4) the ALJ erred during step five in only limiting Sallee's mental work capacities to work that involves simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. (Doc. 15.)

         As explained below, the Court agrees with Sallee that the ALJ committed reversible error when evaluating the severity of her interstitial cystitis and when rejecting her symptom testimony. Given these conclusions, it is unnecessary to resolve Sallee's remaining assignments of error, because they pertain to later stages of the five-step process and the ALJ's analysis during those stages may be different on remand.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Whether the ALJ Erred in Finding Sallee's ...


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