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Soliz v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 30, 2019

Betty Jane Soliz, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Betty Jane Soliz 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 benefits. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) decision was based on reversible legal error and remands for further proceedings.

         Soliz is a 55-year-old female who previously worked as a correction officer, warehouse worker, and document technician. In January 2012, Soliz filed an application for disability benefits, alleging a disability onset date in December 2011. (A.R. 325-326.) The claim was denied initially on July 3, 2012 (A.R. 177) and again upon reconsideration on June 7, 2013 (A.R. 199). Soliz then filed a written request for hearing on July 5, 2013. (A.R. 239-240.) On June 10, 2014 and June 17, 2014, she appeared and testified at a hearing at which an impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified. (A.R. 42-120.) On September 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision concluding Soliz wasn’t disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (A.R. 200-221.) Soliz requested the Appeals Council review the decision, and on March 23, 2016, the Appeals Council granted her request and remanded the case to the ALJ. (A.R. 222-227.) The ALJ conducted a new hearing on December 15, 2016 (A.R. 121-159) and issued a decision again determining Soliz wasn’t disabled (A.R. 14-38). Soliz requested review of the ALJ’s decision, but the Appeals Council denied review on May 16, 2018. (A.R. 1-6.) At that point, the ALJ’s decision became the Commissioner’s final decision.

         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.

         BACKGROUND

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Soliz met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2017 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 16, 2011. (A.R. 19.) At step two, the ALJ found that Soliz had the following severe impairments: status post lap band procedure, opiate dependence, hypertension, diverticulitis, fibromyalgia, opioid induced mood disorder, obesity, lumbar degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, spondylosis, stenosis, cervical spondylosis, and right medial epicondylitis status post right knee arthroscopy. (A.R. 20.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Soliz didn’t have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (A.R. 20-22.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Soliz had the RFC to perform light work, except that she couldn’t have any exposure to hazards, such as moving machinery or unprotected heights, she couldn’t have any public contact, and she could only have occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. (A.R. 22-28.) The ALJ found Soliz wasn’t capable of performing her past relevant work but could perform the occupations of cleaner/housekeeper, small parts assembler, and garment handler. (A.R. 28-29.)

         In her opening brief, Soliz argues the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) provide reasons for rejecting the opinions of the state agency medical consultants; (2) consider whether carpal tunnel syndrome was a severe impairment and/or include carpal tunnel syndrome-related limitations in her RFC; and (3) adequately explain how she concluded Soliz could perform light work. Soliz asks the Court to remand for reconsideration. (Doc. 12.)

         For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees the ALJ committed reversible legal error when considering Soliz’s limitations caused by carpal tunnel syndrome and when determining Soliz could perform light work. The Court also acknowledges the ALJ committed error when rejecting the State agency medical consultants’ opinions, but this error was harmless.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether The ALJ Committed Reversible Error By Rejecting The State Agency

         Medical Consultants’ Opinions Soliz argues the ALJ erred by failing to give reasons for rejecting the opinions of two state agency medical consultants. (Doc. 12 at 10.) First, Mary Downs, Ph.D, opined that Soliz can carry out simple instructions, sustain a routine, and make simple work-related decisions. (A.R. 174.) Dr. Downs also determined Soliz would have difficulty dealing with workplace changes and Soliz would do better in a job in which tasks were static and changes could be explained. (Id.) Next, Stephen Fair, Ph.D, determined Soliz could perform simple, unskilled work. (A.R. 196.)[1]

         “[A]dministrative law judges must consider findings of State agency medical and psychological consultants . . . as opinion evidence . . . .” Chavez v. Astrue, 699 F.Supp.2d 1125, 1136 (C.D. Cal. 2009) (citation omitted). This means that ALJs “may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to the opinions in their decisions.” S.S.R. 96–6p, 1996 WL 374180, *2 (S.S.A.).

         Here, the ALJ acknowledged the opinions of the state agency medical consultants only at step three: “[T]he undersigned notes that no State agency psychological consultant concluded that mental listing is medically equaled.” (A.R. 22.) However, the ALJ didn’t discuss (much less reject) the mental limitations expressed by Dr. Downs and Dr. Fair when determining Soliz’s RFC. This was a potentially significant omission because both doctors appeared to opine that Soliz can only perform simple, unskilled work, yet the ALJ didn’t expressly incorporate such a limitation into the RFC. (“Light work” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “simple, unskilled work.”) This was error. To the extent the ALJ may have disagreed with those opinions, the ALJ was required to explain why. In the Social Security context, disagreement can’t permissibly be inferred from silence.

         Nevertheless, an error can’t provide an independent reason to remand unless the error was harmful. Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (“[H]armless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.”). And Soliz acknowledges that, “[a]s the ALJ’s decision stands, failure to consider these opinions is harmless because . . . the jobs described by the ALJ were simple, unskilled jobs.” (Doc. 12 at 11.) Therefore, the ALJ’s failure to consider the limitations expressed by Dr. Downs and Dr. Fair, although erroneous, doesn’t provide a basis for remand.

         II. Whether The ALJ’s Consideration of Soliz’s Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Was Reversible Error

         A. The ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ’s discussion of Soliz’s carpal tunnel syndrome is sparse. At step two, the ALJ omitted carpal tunnel syndrome from the list of “severe” impairments without any mention of the ailment. (A.R. 20.) At step four, the ALJ acknowledged that Soliz claimed “she had numbness in her hands.” (A.R. 25.) The ALJ also recognized that an “EMG [Electromyogram test] showed bilateral median neuropathy at or distal to the wrist (as in carpal tunnel syndrome), moderate in degree electrically on left and mild on the right side.” (Id, citing A.R. 1307.) Despite these acknowledgments, the ALJ didn’t include any limitations from Soliz’s carpal tunnel syndrome in the RFC, finding instead “[t]he claimant’s course of treatment . . . in combination with the object[ive] records are not consistent [with] extreme limitations as asserted by the claimant.” (A.R. 25.)

         B. The Parties’ Arguments

         Soliz argues the ALJ erred in two ways with regard to evaluating her symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome. First, Soliz contends the ALJ should have determined that her carpal tunnel syndrome was a “severe impairment” at step two. (Doc. 12 at 11-13.) Second, Soliz asserts the ALJ didn’t properly consider her ...


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