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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 18, 2019

Michael Ross Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES A. TEILBORG SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Michael Ross Johnson'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 26, 2016. (Doc. 11-11 at 21-22 (Ex. 1A at 1-2)). Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial stage, upon reconsideration, and by the ALJ after a hearing. (Id. at 45, 54 (Ex. 5A at 4, 13)). However, Plaintiff prevailed on review before the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded. (Id. at 61-62 (Ex. 6A at 2-3)). On remand, the ALJ again denied the claim, and the Appeals Council affirmed on review. (Doc. 11-5 at 34-44 (ALJ's decision); Doc. 1)). Plaintiff then sought review in this Court. (Doc. 1).

         a. The Disability Determination

         A claimant seeking social security benefits must show he “is under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). If the claimant shows he suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents him from engaging in “substantial gainful activity, ” the claimant is disabled. Id. § 423(d)(1)-(2). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) goes through a five-step process to determine whether the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). If the ALJ determines that the claimant is not disabled at any step, the analysis ends. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant has the burden of proving disability through steps one to four, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1452 (9th Cir. 1984).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If not, the ALJ must proceed to step two and determine if the claimant has a physical or mental impairment or a combination of impairments that are “severe.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the ALJ finds severe impairment, the ALJ must proceed to step three to analyze 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 then 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” given the claimant's RFC. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step where the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work” in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         Here, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for disability benefits because the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could do past relevant work. (Doc. 11-5 at 43-44). The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the asserted period of disability. (Id. at 36). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, immune deficiencies, atrial fibrillation, mood disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's intermittent migraines are not a severe impairment. (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's severe impairments, considered singularly or in combination, “do[] not meet[] or medically equal[] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id.). In performing the RFC analysis, the ALJ considered the opinions of various medical providers that had reviewed Plaintiff's conditions. (Id. at 38, 40-43). After reviewing all the evidence in the record-including Plaintiff's testimony, the objective medical evidence, and the opinions of the medical providers-the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had only mild limitations. (See Id. at 38). Given this finding, at step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a claims processor. (Id. at 43). Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. (Id. at 44).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         An ALJ's decision to deny a disability benefits claim may be reversed only when the decision “is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. (citation omitted). “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, 753 F.2d at 1453 (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). In fact, 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). In doing so, the ALJ “is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008). The Court must not reweigh the evidence, but instead, the Court's limited task is to review the ALJ's decision to ensure it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 644 (9th Cir. 1987).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because Plaintiff asserts the ALJ improperly weighed an opinion of Plaintiff's examining psychologist, the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's bilateral tremor in the severe impairment analysis, and the ALJ did not resolve a conflict between the vocational expert's testimony in the first, ...


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