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Ienco v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 20, 2019

Michael Ienco, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Michael Ienco's (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (the “Commissioner”) denial of his application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., 1381 et seq. (Doc. 1 at 1). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties.[1] The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The parties are familiar with the background information in this case, and it is summarized in the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision. (See Doc. 9-9 at 38-56). Accordingly, the Court will reference the background only as necessary to the analysis below.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits may be overturned “only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance, i.e., such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183 (9th Cir. 1990)).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Id. (citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he trier of fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); see Benton, 331 F.3d at 1035 (“If the evidence can support either outcome, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld.”).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). On the other hand, the Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted).

         Furthermore, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. Rather, it is a “fundamental rule of administrative law” that a reviewing court, in dealing with a judgement which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, may only make its decision based upon evidence discussed by the agency. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947). Thus, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). Similarly, when challenging an ALJ's decision, “issues which are not specifically and distinctly argued and raised in a party's opening brief are waived.” Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Trans. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc., 228 F.3d 1105, 1110 n. 1 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc), vacated and remanded on other grounds, 535 U.S. 391 (2002)); see also Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1226 n. 7 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle to Social Security appeals). Accordingly, the Court “will not manufacture arguments for an appellant.” Arpin, 261 F.3d at 919 (citation omitted).

         A. Definition of a Disability

         A claimant can qualify for Social Security disability benefits only if he can show that, among other things, he is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is disabled only if his “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). A finding of “not disabled” at any step in the sequential process will end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the ALJ at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:

         First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At the second step, the ALJ next considers whether the claimant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(c). A “severe impairment” is one that “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. Basic work activities are the “abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs, ” such as lifting, carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine.” Id. § 404.1521(b). Additionally, unless the claimant's impairment is expected to result in death, “it must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months” for the claimant to be found disabled. Id. § 404.1509.

         Third, having found a severe impairment, the ALJ then considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). This requires the ALJ to determine if the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. Id. If so, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled. Id. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the ALJ will assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). In assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ will consider the claimant's “impairment(s), and any related symptoms, such as pain, [that] may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [the claimant] can do in a work setting.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). A claimant's RFC is the most the claimant can still do despite the effects of all the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including those that are not severe. Id. § 404.1545(a)(1-2).

         At step four, the ALJ determines whether, despite his impairments, the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To do this, the ALJ compares the claimant's residual function capacity with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform his past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the final step.

         At the fifth and final step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work” that exists in the national economy. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the ALJ finds that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). However, if the ALJ finds that the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id.

         In evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case record. Id. § 404.1520(a)(3). This includes medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and third-party reporting. See Id. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529.

         C. The ALJ's Evaluation under the Five Step Process

         Prior to beginning the sequential evaluation process, ALJ Waters noted that Plaintiff's case was before her on remand from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Tr. 397).[2] Previously, on October 27, 2011, ALJ Tucevich had denied Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning December 30, 2008. (Tr. 28, 397).[3] After the Appeals Council denied review on September 28, 2012, Plaintiff requested review by the District Court, which affirmed the Commissioner's decision. (Tr. 397). Upon Plaintiff's appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court's decision, ordering the ALJ to reconsider Plaintiff's eligibility for disability benefits. (Id.); see Ienco v. Colvin, 627 Fed.Appx. 669, 670 (9th Cir. 2015). Particularly, the Ninth Circuit directed the ALJ to make findings on remand as to Plaintiff's ability to work in excess of 25 hours per week. (Id.).

         While the claims above were pending, Plaintiff filed subsequent applications for Title II and Title XVI benefits on November 27, 2012. (Tr. 397, 521). These subsequent claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 397). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a request for hearing, which was held on December 4, 2015. (Id.). Prior to a decision being issued, however, the Appeals Council remanded the earlier claim and directed ALJ Waters to consolidate Plaintiff's subsequent claims filed on November 27, 2012 with the remanded claims. (Id.). After Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing on March 7, 2017, ALJ Waters issued an unfavorable decision on June 6, 2017. (Tr. 397, 415).

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process, ALJ Waters found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 30, 2008, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 400). In step two, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff had one severe impairment- schizoaffective disorder. (Id.). At this step, the ALJ also found that Plaintiff had non-severe impairments of diabetes, hyperlipidemia, a learning disability in reading, essential tremor, and hypothyroidism. (Id.). Under the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the impairments listed in the Social Security Regulations. (Tr. 401). Before moving on to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC determination after consideration of the entire record. (Tr. 402). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels[.]” (Id.). However, the ALJ noted the following non-exertional limitations: “The claimant can perform simple routine and repetitive work tasks involving simple work related decisions and simple instructions with few changes in the work setting.” (Id.). The ALJ also determined that the “record does not support a finding of an inability to perform all work-related activity on a full time basis.” (Tr. 409).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a sandwich maker and industrial cleaner because this work did “not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by” Plaintiff's RFC. (Tr. 413). Although the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work, the ALJ noted that there were also other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including kitchen helper and laboratory equipment cleaner. (Tr. 414). Consequently, the ALJ did not proceed to the fifth and final step but, rather, concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from December 30, 2008 through June 6, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 415); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) (stating that if the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the ALJ will find that he is not disabled).

         III. ANALYIS

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's denial of his application for Social Security Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was not supported by substantial evidence and asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed for an award of benefits. (Doc. 10 at 12, 24-25). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to discuss whether Plaintiff's mental impairments satisfy the paragraph “C” criteria for Listing 12.03; (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence; (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated statements from other sources; and (4) the ALJ failed to properly consider all the record evidence. (See Doc. 10). However, for the reasons set forth below, the final decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         A. Whether the ALJ Erred in Determining that Plaintiff's Mental Impairment Did Not Satisfy the Paragraph “C” Criteria for Listing 12.03

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to discuss and make findings as to the Paragraph “C” criteria for Listing 12.03 at step three of the sequential evaluation process. (Id. at 21). In this step, the ALJ considers whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The impairments included in the Listings are considered “severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a), 416.925(a) (emphasis added). “For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). Likewise, to show that an unlisted impairment is “equivalent” to a listed impairment, the claimant “must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Id. at 531 (citation omitted). When analyzing a claimant's mental impairments, including psychotic disorders, “[t]he required level of severity for these disorders is met when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.03.

         Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet Listings 12.03 (Schizophrenic, Paranoid, and Other Psychotic Disorders, 12.04 (Depressive Disorders), or 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders) because Plaintiff did not meet the requisite “B” or “C” criteria. (Tr. 401-02). The ALJ first determined that Plaintiff did not meet the criteria for each of the listings under Paragraph B. (Tr. 401-02).[4] Then, the ALJ turned to Paragraph C. (Tr. 402). Paragraph C of Listing 12.03 requires:

Medically documented history of a chronic schizophrenic, paranoid, or other psychotic disorder of at least 2 years' duration that has caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do basic work activities with symptoms or signs currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial support, and one of the following:
(1) Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration; or
(2) A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or
(3) Current history of 1 or more years' inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of ...

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