United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. TEILBORG SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
The Disability Determination
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).
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. §
The ALJ's Decision
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.).
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).
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).
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, ...