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Bello v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 24, 2019

Judith Margarita Bello, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Dominic W. Lanza, United States District Judge.

         At 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).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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.)

         Ultimately, 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.)

         II. 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.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff 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 1–2.)

         A. The ALJ Erred In Rejecting Plaintiff’s Symptom Testimony

         1. Plaintiff&rs ...


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