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Clark v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 30, 2019

Jerry Clark, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Jerry Clark's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). 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, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 14, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 15, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 10, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 2176-92) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 2166-69).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff first filed an application for Social Security Disability Benefits on March 25, 2004. (R. at 2282-83.) An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied that claim on February 15, 2006. (R. at 2283.)

         Plaintiff, again, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on June 4, 2011 for a period of disability beginning November 1, 2008. (R. at 27.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on November 25, 2011 (R. at 27), and on reconsideration on March 19, 2012 (R. at 27). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an ALJ on October 29, 2012. (R. at 27.) On January 24, 2013, after the ALJ determined that the presumption of continuing nondisability did not apply (R. at 27), she denied Plaintiff's Application (R. at 40). On May 29, 2014, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 4-6.) On July 25, 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint for judicial review. (R. at 2284.) On April 15, 2015, this Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for further proceedings. (R. at 2289.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff testified at a hearing held before an ALJ on June 5, 2017. (R. at 2176.) On September 5, 2017, the ALJ, again, found the presumption of continuing nondisability did not apply (R. at 2177) but denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 2192.) On June 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 2166.) On August 22, 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 evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following alleged impairments: history of left shoulder surgery; status post left knee replacement; obesity; asthma; lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease; right knee arthritis; marijuana abuse disorder; alcohol abuse disorder; depressive disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; and cluster B traits; hypertension; human immunodeficiency virus; mild hip osteoarthritis; and tinnitus. (R. at 2179-80.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404.” (R. at 2180.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)”-with certain exceptions-in a role such as assembler, nut sorter, or almond blancher. (R. at 2182, 2192.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but 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 presently 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 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, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) Plaintiff's impairments medically equaled the severity of Listing 1.03, establishing disability; (2) the ALJ erred by rejecting the Veterans Administration determination of disability; and (3) the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Drs. Thomas Buenker and Jack Hawks. (Pl.'s Br. at 4.)

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Finding Plaintiff's Impairments Did Not Medically ...


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