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Montgold v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 26, 2019

Randy M. Montgold, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James A. Teilborg, Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of the denial of his application for social security disability benefits. Plaintiff makes the following claims of error on appeal: 1) the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to give germane reasons for discounting the testimony of 3 lay witnesses; 2) the ALJ failed to ask the appropriate questions of the vocational expert; 3) the ALJ failed to discuss Plaintiff's cubital tunnel syndrome; and 4) the ALJ failed to explain his decision sufficiently with respect to Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity. (Doc. 19 at 1). Plaintiff seeks, “remand[] for further proceedings including a de novo hearing and new decision.” (Doc. 19 at 25).

         I. Legal Standard

         A. Standard of Review on Appeal

         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (internal quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (internal citation omitted). In other words, substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion.” Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009).

         “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) (internal citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court considers the “record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the” ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “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.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (internal citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of the 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 Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).

         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 and the decision is free from legal error, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). 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 quotation and citation omitted).

         Notably, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). Rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support of those reasons. See id.

         B. Definition of Disability

         To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show that, among other things, he is “under a disability.” 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 “under a disability 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).

         C. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To evaluate a claim of disability, the Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (2016); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. 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 through the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner in the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as follows:

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

         2. If the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ next determines whether the claimant has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). To be considered severe, the impairment must “significantly limit[] [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. § 404.1520(c). 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). Further, the impairment must either have lasted for “a continuous period of at least twelve months, ” be expected to last for such a period, or be expected “to result in death.” Id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The “step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the claimant is not disabled.

         3. Having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is found disabled without further inquiry. If not, before proceeding to the next step, the ALJ will make a finding regarding the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). A claimant's “residual functional capacity” ...


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