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Jimenez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 24, 2019

Trisha Marie Jimenez, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes, J.

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on August 25, 2014, alleging disability beginning July 22, 2014. (A.R. 16.) The claim was denied initially on January 7, 2015, and upon reconsideration on April 29, 2015. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On March 20, 2017, Plaintiff, her representative, and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 37-62.) The ALJ issued a written decision on June 5, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 16-28.) This became the Commissioner’s final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 1-3.)

         On June 22, 2018, Plaintiff sought review by this Court. (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 11), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 14-16). For reasons stated below, the Court reverses the Commissioner’s decision and remands for an award of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         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). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. 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 still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 22, 2014. (A.R. 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: headaches, non-epileptic event disorder, obesity, cognitive disorder, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments do not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 19.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant can occasionally balance and climb ramps or stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can have occasional exposure to excessively loud noises, can have no exposure to dangerous machinery with moving mechanical parts, can have no exposure to unprotected heights, and cannot drive as part of her job. Mentally, the claimant is limited to tasks that can be learned by demonstration within thirty days, work that does not involve fast-paced work requirements, and work involving minimal, in-person public interaction.

(Id. at 21.) With this RFC in mind, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 26.) Moving to step five, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform including those of cleaner (DICOT 381.687-022, 1991 WL 673259), kitchen helper (DICOT 318.687-010, 1991 WL 672755), and hand packager (DICOT 920.587-018, 1991 WL 687916). (Id. at 28.) Consequently, the ALJ held that Plaintiff had not been disabled through the date of her decision. (Id.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court’s role to review the ALJ’s decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ’s decision to determine whether 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, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ’s decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.’” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         In determining whether the ALJ committed legal error, the district court is bound to apply the legal standards imposed by the law of this Circuit. This includes the requirement that, unless contradicted by another physician, if “the ALJ wishes to disregard the opinion of the treating physician, he or she must make findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983).

         DISCUSSION

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s decision on two bases. First, she argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to analyze Plaintiff’s psychogenic seizures under Listing 12.07 of the Listing of Impairments during her step three evaluation. Second, she contends that the ALJ erred by improperly rejecting the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Ronald Bennett, M.D. (Doc. 24 at 10-15.) Having reviewed the record and the parties’ briefs, the Court agrees that the ALJ erred by failing to evaluate Plaintiff’s psychogenic seizures under Listing 12.07 and by improperly rejecting the medical opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician. Although the ALJ’s failure to assess Plaintiff’s impairments under Listing 12.07 was harmless, the Court finds the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Bennett’s opinions harmful. Therefore, the ALJ’s decision must be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits for the reasons explained below.

         I. The ALJ’s Failure to Evaluate Plaintiff’s Psychogenic Seizures UnderListing ...


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