United States District Court, D. Arizona
Dominic W. Lanza, United States District Judge.
issue is the denial of Plaintiff Judith Margarita
Bello’s application for disability insurance benefits
by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”).
Plaintiff filed a complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking
judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses
Plaintiff’s opening brief (Doc. 13), the
Commissioner’s opposition (Doc. 15), and
Plaintiff’s reply (Doc. 16). The Court has reviewed the
briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 12, R.) and now
reverses the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ”) decision (R. at 15–27) as upheld by
the Appeals Council (R. at 1–3).
filed an application for benefits on April 14, 2014 for a
period of disability beginning on December 16, 2013. (R. at
15.) Plaintiff’s claim was denied initially on August
6, 2014 (R. at 15) and on reconsideration on December 31,
2014 (R. at 15). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held
before an ALJ on August 12, 2016. (R. at 15.) On February 6,
2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s application. (R. at
27.) On March 30, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a request
for review of the ALJ’s decision. (R. at 1–3.) On
May 29, 2018, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial
review of the denial.
Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and
finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The
pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing
the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering
the medical records and opinions, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
“obesity; headaches; degenerative disc disease and
peripheral neuropathy.” (R. at 17–18.)
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “[did] not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that [met] or
medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404.” (R. at 20.) The ALJ
then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to “perform sedentary work
as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)”-with certain
exceptions-in a role such as nail technician, accounting
clerk, or assistant manager. (R. at 21, 26.)
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).
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.
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.
raises three arguments: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting
Plaintiff’s symptom testimony; (2) the ALJ erred by
rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
neurologist, Dr. Stephen Flitman; and (3) the ALJ erred by
finding that Plaintiff’s alleged fibromyalgia was not a
medically determinable or severe impairment that had no more
than a minimal effect on her ability to work. (Doc. 13 at
The ALJ Erred In Rejecting Plaintiff’s Symptom