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Frigon v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 8, 2019

Russell Lee Frigon, Plaintiff,
v.
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Eileen S. Willett, United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Russell Lee Frigon's (“Plaintiff”) appeal of the Social Security Administration's (“Social Security”) denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. The Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiff's appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court has the power to enter, based upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 7).

         After reviewing the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) and the parties' briefing (Docs. 10, 14, 15), the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of harmful legal error. The decision is therefore affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1963, has experience working as a hair stylist and retail store manager. (A.R. 67, 93). Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits alleged that on May 15, 2011, he became unable to work due to human immunodeficiency virus (“HIV”), back injury/back pain, arthritis, and depression. (A.R. 93). Social Security denied the application. (A.R. 127-30). In November 2012, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of benefits. (A.R. 132-34). Plaintiff sought further review by an ALJ, who conducted a hearing in October 2013. (A.R. 36-91).

         In a October 31, 2013 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R. 18-35). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (A.R. 1-6). On February 12, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona seeking judicial review and reversal of the ALJ's decision. No. CV-15-00269-PHX-DGC, Doc. 1. Plaintiff argued that the ALJ (i) improperly rejected the medical opinions of Drs. Thanes Vanig, Drew Kovach, and Brent Geary and (ii) erroneously failed to consider Reiter's Syndrome as a severe impairment. (A.R. 1144-45). The assigned District Judge ruled that because the ALJ's decision “is generally supported by substantial evidence and not based on legal error, the decision will be generally affirmed.” (A.R. 1142). The District Judge remanded the matter for further proceedings to address Dr. Vanig's opinion concerning Plaintiff's alleged fatigue. (A.R. 1150).

         On remand, the matter was assigned to a different ALJ, who held a second administrative hearing in March 2016. (A.R. 1070-1106). In an October 2016 decision, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work. (A.R. 1051-63). The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff filed the instant action.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation

         The Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for disability insurance benefits to those who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). To be eligible for benefits based on an alleged disability, the claimant must show that he or she suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected to cause death or last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. Id.

         To decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits, an ALJ conducts an analysis consisting of five questions, which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding the first four steps:[1]

Step One: Is the claimant engaged in “substantial gainful activity”? If so, the analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two.
Step Two: Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A severe impairment is one which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step three.
Step Three: Is the impairment equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step of the analysis.
Step Four: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work which the claimant performed in the past? If not, the claimant is “not disabled” and disability benefits are denied without continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § ...

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