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Monroe v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 10, 2019

Dennis M Monroe, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Dennis M. Monroe's (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”) denial of his application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. (Doc. 1). The Court now rules on the appeal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on January 29, 2015. (Doc. 12-6 at 2). Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial stage, upon reconsideration, and by the ALJ after a hearing. (Id.).

         a. The Disability Determination

         To qualify for social security benefits, a claimant must show he “is under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). If he shows he suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him from engaging in any “substantial gainful activity, ” the claimant is disabled. Id. § 423(d)(1)-(2). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has created a five-step process for an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine whether the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). If an ALJ determines that the individual is not disabled at any step, the inquiry ends. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, ” and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If he is not, the ALJ must proceed to step two and consider whether the claimant has a physical or mental impairment or a combination of impairments that are “severe.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If there is severe impairment, the ALJ proceeds to step three to determine 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. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). The RFC represents the most a claimant “can still do despite [his] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can still do “past relevant work” in light of the claimant's RFC. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If not, the ALJ proceeds to the final step to determine whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work” considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff social security benefits because she determined he could do the full range of medium exertional work. (Doc. 12-3 at 31-32). After finding that Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity at step one, at step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “medically determinable mental impairments of major depressive disorder and mild cognitive disorder, considered singly and in combination, do not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and are therefore nonsevere.” (Id. at 24-26). However, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's hemochromatosis and obstructive sleep apnea were severe impairments, so she proceeded to step three. (Id. at 24).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's severe impairments “do[] not meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id. at 27). Therefore, the ALJ underwent the RFC analysis. (Id. at 27-29). In doing so, she discounted Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and the opinions of his treating providers which indicated moderate, moderately severe, and severe limitations in various activities performed “on a sustained basis in a routine work setting, ” (Doc. 12-11 at 82-83 (Ex. 8F) (NP Nemati); Doc. 12-13 at 47-48 (Ex. 15F) (Dr. Saunders)). (Doc. 12-3 at 27-29). The ALJ instead credited the Disability Determination Service's reviewing medical consultant and psychological consultant. (Id. at 29). The medical consultant determined Plaintiff could do the full range of work at the medium exertional level, and the psychological consultant determined Plaintiff's mental impairments were nonsevere. (Id.). The ALJ's ultimate conclusion was that Plaintiff's impairments restrict him “to the full range of the medium exertional level.” (Id. at 31). At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's past work was at the medium exertional level, and thus, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. (Id. at 31-32).


         An ALJ's decision to deny a claim for disability benefits may be reversed “only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance, i.e., such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183 (9th Cir. 1990)).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). The ALJ, as the trier of fact, “must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the [C]ourt may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). The ALJ is also “entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008). And, it is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve conflicts in medical testimony, determine credibility, and resolve ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Accordingly, the ALJ has the “duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered.” Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1288 (9th Cir. 1996)).

         The Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). Moreover, “[a]lthough the ALJ's analysis need not be extensive, the ALJ must provide some reasoning in order for [the Court] to meaningfully determine whether the ALJ's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 495 (9th Cir. 2015). In other words, if the ALJ's “path” cannot “reasonably be discerned, ” the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Id. (quoting Alaska Dep't of Envtl. Conservation v. E.P.A., 540 U.S. 461, 497 (2004)). As such, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support of those reasons. See Orn, 495 F.3d at 630.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in the weight she gave the opinions of his treating providers and the opinions of the agency consultants, in discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony, and in concluding that Plaintiff's mental conditions do not constitute severe impairments. (Doc. 15).

         a. Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinions of Plaintiff's treating providers. (Doc. 15 at 3-8). Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's request to subpoena the agency consultants who evaluated his conditions. (Id. at 9-10).

         1. ...

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