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Gonzalez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 20, 2019

Joseph Gonzalez, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Bernardo P. Velasco United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Joseph Gonzalez 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. 13.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Docs. 15-18.) For the following reasons, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner and remands for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. Procedural History

         On April 24, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI Application for Supplemental Security Income on May 7, 2015. (Administrative Record (AR) 15, 208-16.) Plaintiff alleged disability as of February 9, 2015 due to arthritis, intellectual disorder, learning disability, and attention deficit disorder. (AR 233.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on August 14, 2015 (AR 59-72), and upon reconsideration on November 24, 2015 (AR 87-103). After requesting a hearing (AR 137-38), on April 5, 2017, Plaintiff testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (AR 34-56). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 2, 2017. (AR 15-28.) The Appeals Counsel denied Plaintiff's Request for Review on December 5, 2017 (AR 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final for the purposes of review.

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on January 8, 2018. Plaintiff first claims that harmless error occurred when the ALJ failed to consider the opinion of vocational expert Philip Shapiro, MS, CVE, CRC. (Doc. 16 at 2.) Second, the ALJ erred because she failed to account for Plaintiff's synostosis in his left arm in the RFC. Id. Because the Court finds that the ALJ committed harmful legal error by not evaluating Mr. Shapiro's opinion, it does not reach Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ failed to account for Plaintiff's ability to rotate his arm due to synostosis.

         II. 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 stage 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 since February 9, 2015. (AR 18.)

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including cervical stenosis, arthritis, intellectual disorder, attention deficit disorder, and depression. (AR 18.)

         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. Id. The ALJ considered Listings 12.04, 12.05, and 12.11 in her determination, and found that under the B criteria of these listings, Plaintiff suffered moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; and concentration, persistence, and pace. (AR 19.) The ALJ further found only mild limitations in social interactions, adapting and personal management. (AR 19.) The ALJ found Plaintiff had not met the severity needed for a listed impairment because he did not have two marked limitations or one extreme limitation. (AR 19.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had failed to meet the paragraph C criteria as well. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ stated that given the limiting effects of her ailments, Plaintiff's RFC permitted light work with occasional ladder climbing, crawling, and reaching overhead bilaterally. (AR 20.) Furthermore, Plaintiff could understand, remember, and perform simple tasks. Id. But, based on this assessment, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work because Plaintiff's abilities did not meet the parameters set in the RFC. (AR 26.)

         Finally, at step five, given Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and that work for Plaintiff existed in the national economy as a hand packager, garment sorter, or stock checker. (AR 27.)

         III. Plaintiff's Background, Statements, and ...

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