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Varela v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 15, 2019

Allison Mae Varela, 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 her denial of her application for social security disability benefits. Plaintiff raises 4 claims of error on appeal: 1) the ALJ failed to give sufficient reasons for not crediting the opinions of a treating physician, Dr. Anderson; 2) the ALJ failed to give sufficient reasons for not crediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony; 3) the ALJ failed to give sufficient reasons for not crediting the testimony of a lay witness, B.N.; and 4) the ALJ posed an inadequate hypothetical to the vocational expert.

         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.

         II. Claims of ...


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