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Odell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 15, 2019

Angela Odell, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable Steven P. Logan United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Angela Odell's Applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration under the Social Security 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. 12, Pl. Br.), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 13, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 14, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 10, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision (R. at 39-56) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on December 18, 2014 for a period of disability beginning on March 18, 2012. (R. at 42.) On the same day, Plaintiff also filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits, alleging the same disability onset date. (R. at 42.) Her claims were denied initially on June 19, 2015, and upon reconsideration on December 17, 2015. (R. at 42.) On July 24, 2017, Plaintiff appeared before the ALJ for a video hearing regarding her claims. (R. at 42.) On November 15, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims, and on August 17, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 42.)

         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. Upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on two severe impairments- degenerative disc disease and left shoulder dysfunction status post arthroplasty. (R. at 45.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 49.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. at 45.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform “light work, ” except that she would have several limitations. (R. at 46.) He found that Plaintiff can carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. (R. at 46.) She can sit, stand, or walk for six hours per eight-hour workday. (R. at 46.) Plaintiff can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (R. at 46.) She can crawl and frequently climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch. (R. at 46.) She can occasionally reach overhead. (R. at 46.) Finally, she cannot have concentrated exposure to vibration, moving machinery, or unprotected heights. (R. at 46.) Consequently, the ALJ found that she “can perform her past relevant work as a Retail Manager, as generally performed in the national economy.” (R. at 48.)

         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. Generally, “[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 she 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. (Pl. Br. at 1.) First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by giving reduced weight to the opinion of Dr. Ernest Mar, Plaintiff's treating physician. (Pl. Br. at 14.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected her symptom testimony. (Pl. Br. at 20.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by improperly relying on vocational expert testimony in supporting his decision. (Pl. Br. at 23.) Because the Court agrees with Plaintiff's first two arguments, the third argument is superfluous.[1]

         A. The ALJ erred by giving reduced weight to Dr. Mar's opinion.

         Dr. Mar completed Disability Impairment Questionnaires on behalf of Plaintiff on March 27, 2015 and January 19, 2016. (R. at 300, 586.) Dr. Mar based his opinions on his treatment of Plaintiff between November 2013 and January 2016. (R. at 582.) He diagnosed Plaintiff with cervical degenerative disc disease, displaced lumbar intervertebrate disc disease, lumbar degenerative disc disease, left rotator cuff tear, fibromyalgia, and generalized anxiety disorder. (R. at 582.)

         Dr. Mar opined that Plaintiff had a variety of limitations due to her impairments. (R. at 582-86.) He found that Plaintiff's symptoms included constant neck, left-shoulder, elbow, bilateral hand, joint, and hip pain. (R. at 583.) He also noted joint swelling and stiffness. (R. at 583.) He found that her pain was aggravated with stress, anxiety, increased ranges of motion, lifting, walking, sitting, and standing. (R. at 583.) Because of these symptoms, he found that Plaintiff would be limited to sitting for only two hours per workday, and standing or walking for two hours per workday. (R. at 584.) He also found that it would be medically necessary for Plaintiff to avoid continuous sitting for an entire workday, to elevate her legs while sitting, and to frequently alternate between sitting and moving around. (R. at 584.) Finally, he opined that Plaintiff has ...


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