United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. TEILBORG SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
before the Court is Plaintiff Sheri Loper's
(“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security
Commissioner's (the “Commissioner”) denial of
her application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (Doc. 1 at 1-2).
This matter has been fully briefed by the
parties. The Court now rules on Plaintiff's
parties are familiar with the background information in this
case, and it is summarized in Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Joan G. Knight's September 26, 2017
decision. (See Doc 12-3 at 50-62). Accordingly, the
Court will reference the background only as necessary to the
ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits may be
overturned “only when the ALJ's findings are based
on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in
the record.” Benton ex rel. Benton v.
Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003).
“‘Substantial evidence' means more than a
mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance, i.e., such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Robbins v. Soc.
Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing
Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183 (9th Cir.
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) (citation
omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible of more than
one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion
which must be upheld; and in reaching [her] findings, the ALJ
is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the
evidence.” Id. (citations omitted); see
Batson v. Comm'r of 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 Benton, 331 F.3d at 1035
(“If the evidence can support either outcome, the
Commissioner's decision must be upheld.”).
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, the Court must
affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501
(9th Cir. 1989). 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 quotations omitted).
the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and
making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not
disabled. Rather, it is a “fundamental rule of
administrative law” that a reviewing court, in dealing
with a judgement which an administrative agency alone is
authorized to make, may only make its decision based upon
evidence discussed by the agency. Sec. & Exch.
Comm'n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947).
Thus, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons
asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support
of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d
871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). Similarly, when challenging an
ALJ's decision, “issues which are not specifically
and distinctly argued and raised in a party's opening
brief are waived.” Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley
Trans. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing
Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc., 228 F.3d 1105, 1110 n. 1
(9th Cir. 2000) (en banc), vacated and remanded on other
grounds, 535 U.S. 391 (2002)); see also Bray v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1226 n. 7
(9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle to Social Security
appeals). Accordingly, the Court “will not manufacture
arguments for an appellant.” Arpin, 261 F.3d
at 919 (citation omitted).
Definition of a Disability
claimant can qualify for Social Security disability benefits
only if she can show that, among other things, she is
disabled. 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 disabled only if her “physical or mental
impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is
not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot,
considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy.” Id. §
The Five-Step Evaluation Process
Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential
process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d
715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). 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 at the first four steps,
but the burden shifts to the ALJ at the final step.
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as
First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in
“substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
second step, the ALJ next considers whether the claimant has
a “severe medically determinable physical or mental
impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If
the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the
claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(c). A
“severe impairment” is one that
“significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities.”
Id. 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). Additionally, unless the
claimant's impairment is expected to result in death,
“it must have lasted or must be expected to last for a
continuous period of at least 12 months” for the
claimant to be found disabled. Id. § 404.1509.
having found a severe impairment, the ALJ then considers the
severity of the claimant's impairment. Id.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). This requires the ALJ to
determine if the claimant's impairment “meets or
equals” one of the impairments listed in the
regulations. Id. If so, then the ALJ will find that
the claimant is disabled. Id. If the claimant's
impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then
the ALJ will assess the claimant's “residual
functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and
other evidence in [the claimant's] case record.”
Id. § 404.1520(e). In assessing the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), the ALJ will consider the claimant's
“impairment(s), and any related symptoms, such as pain,
[that] may cause physical and mental limitations that affect
what [the claimant] can do in a work setting.”
Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). A claimant's RFC is
the most the claimant can still do despite the effects of all
the claimant's medically determinable impairments,
including those that are not severe. Id. §
four, the ALJ determines whether, despite her impairments,
the claimant can still perform “past relevant
work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To do
this, the ALJ compares the claimant's residual function
capacity with the physical and mental demands of the
claimant's past relevant work. Id. §
404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform her past
relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Otherwise,
the ALJ proceeds to the final step.
fifth and final step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant
“can make an adjustment to other work” that
exists in the national economy. Id. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ
considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work
experience. Id. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the ALJ
finds that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work,
then the claimant is not disabled. Id. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v). However, if the ALJ finds that the
claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the
claimant is disabled. Id.
evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step
process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case
record. Id. § 404.1520(a)(3). This includes
medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and
third-party reporting. See Id. §§
The ALJ's Evaluation under the Five Step
one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since October 15, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 12-3 at
50). In step two, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff had the
following severe impairments: “right shoulder recurrent
adhesive capsulitis, status post left knee replacement, right
knee osteoarthritis, status post lumbar fusion, spinal
stenosis, mood disorder NO, and cognitive disorder
NOS.” (Id. at 51). Under the third step, the
ALJ determined that the severity of ...