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Lockwood v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 29, 2019

Teresa Y. Lockwood, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Teresa Y. Lockwood (“Lockwood”) 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 and disability insurance benefits. As explained below, the Court affirms.

         I. 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.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Lockwood is a high school graduate who previously worked as an auto service station manager in Colorado for 23 years. (A.R. 58.) Lockwood left that job on June 19, 2014, when her doctor informed her that she could “not perform the duties of [her] job without assistan[ce].” (Id.) Lockwood has since received long-term disability benefits. (A.R. 62.) Those benefits will terminate in 2024. (Id.)

         On July 2, 2014, Lockwood filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging that her disability began on June 19, 2014. (A.R. 197-98.)

         On September 13, 2016, the hearing occurred before the ALJ. (A.R. 52-88.) Lockwood and a vocational expert (“VE”) each testified. (A.R. 52.)

         On December 1, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Lockwood's application. (A.R. 16-28.)

         On December 19, 2016, Lockwood requested review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 194-96.)

         On August 17, 2017, the Appeals Council denied this request, adopting the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. (A.R. 2-8.)

         A. ...


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