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Vargas v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 6, 2019

Maribel Vargas, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MICHAEL T. LIBURDI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Maribel Vargas's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 15, Pl. Br.), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 18, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 19, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 14, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision (R. at 8-18) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-7).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application on March 2, 2015 for a period of disability beginning on February 12, 2015. (R. at 11.) Her claim was denied initially on April 25, 2015, and upon reconsideration on September 11, 2015. (Id.) Plaintiff then testified at a video hearing held before the ALJ on July 24, 2017. (Id.) On January 12, 2018, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 8-18.) This decision became final on October 18, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. at 1-7.)

         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 severe impairments: degeneration of intervertebral disc of the lumbar region, lumbar spinal stenosis, lumbar radiculopathy, lumbosacral spondylosis, and obesity. (R. at 13.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 18.) 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. at 13.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with some limitations. (R. at 14.) Specifically, Plaintiff “would be limited to occupations that require no more than occasional postural maneuvers, such as balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing on ramps and stairs.” (Id.) Further, Plaintiff “must avoid occupations that require climbing on ladders, ropes and scaffolds” and “should avoid all exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.” (Id.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work” but can perform some work in the national economy. (R. at 17.)

         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 and meets the duration requirement. 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 the ALJ 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 two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony without providing clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff's RFC. (Pl. Br. at 7-18.)

         A. The ALJ erred by rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony.

         At the video hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that her back pain is constantly at a nine or nine and a half out of ten. (R. at 56.) She testified that she cannot stand or sit for long and spends much of her time lying down in bed. (R. at 51.) She testified that she sits upright for only about 20-25 percent of each day and drives approximately twice per day, three times per week. (R. at 51, 53.) She also testified that she uses a cane and walker to help her walk. (R. at 55.)

         The ALJ discounted Plaintiff's symptom testimony for two reasons. First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record” and that the record contained no opinions by physicians that Plaintiff was precluded from all work activity. ...


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