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Sanders v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 8, 2019

Kerina Denise Sanders, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Kerina Sanders filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner). (Doc. 1.) Before the Court are Sanders's Opening Brief, Defendant's Responsive Brief, and Sanders's Reply. (Docs. 16, 17, 20.) The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 13.) Based on the pleadings and the administrative record, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Sanders filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in August 2014. (Administrative Record (AR) 213, 216.) She alleged disability from June 4, 2014. (AR 213.) Sanders's application was denied upon initial review (AR 89-110) and on reconsideration (AR 111-38). A hearing was held on January 9, 2017. (AR 58-88.) Subsequently, the ALJ found that Sanders was not disabled. (AR 33-45.) The Appeals Council denied Sanders's request for review. (AR 1.)


         Sanders was born in 1961 and was 52 years of age at the alleged onset date of her disability. (AR 213.) The ALJ found that Sanders had severe impairments of left hip degenerative joint disease, fibromyalgia, hepatitis C infection, and mild obesity. (AR 36.) The ALJ determined Sanders had the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with frequent stooping, crouching, and balancing, but only occasional crawling or climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds. (AR 39.) The ALJ concluded at Step Four, based on the testimony of a vocational expert, that Sanders could perform her past relevant work as a telemarketer. (AR 44.)


         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential process to evaluate SSI and DIB claims. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920; see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983). To establish disability the claimant bears the burden of showing she (1) is not working; (2) has a severe physical or mental impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; and (4) claimant's RFC precludes her from performing her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant has the RFC to perform other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). If the Commissioner conclusively finds the claimant “disabled” or “not disabled” at any point in the five-step process, he does not proceed to the next step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989)). The findings of the Commissioner are meant to be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)). The court may overturn the decision to deny benefits only “when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001). This is so because the ALJ “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, 981 F.2d at 1019 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 400 (1971)); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). The Commissioner's decision, however, “cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Reviewing courts must consider the evidence that supports as well as detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975).


         Sanders argues the ALJ committed two errors: (1) he failed to account for limitations arising from Sanders's hand impairments; and (2) he failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting her symptom testimony.

         Hand Impairments

         Sanders argues the ALJ erred in not finding her hand impairments severe at Step Two and including manipulative limitations in the RFC. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Sanders's left hand condition was non-severe. (AR 36.) The ALJ noted Sanders's history of left hand surgery and 4/5 left upper extremity strength in August 2014, but he found that “the evidence d[id] not demonstrate ongoing restrictions due to this condition.” (Id.) The ALJ stated that he had considered Sanders's reports of bodily pain related to the severe impairment of fibromyalgia. (Id.)

         A finding of disability requires an “inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A physical or mental impairment must last or be expected to last for 12 or more months and must be “established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by your statement of symptoms.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1509, 416.907, 416.909. An impairment is “not ...

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