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Bridges v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 7, 2018

Dessie M Bridges, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Dessie Bridges seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. The Court finds that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision is based on reversible legal error, and will remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 53 year old female who previously worked as an administrative aide, home health aide, and caregiver-companion. A.R. 33, 160. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in April 2013, alleging disability beginning on April 29, 2012. A.R. 23. On April 6, 2016, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On May 11, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 23-33. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 13, 2017. A.R. 1-5.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The Court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the determination only if it 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, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. In determining 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. (citation omitted). As a general rule, “[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).

         Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id. “The burden is on the party claiming error to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected [her] substantial rights.” Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security 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, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) she is not currently working, (2) she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2019, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 29, 2012. A.R. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with stenosis; degenerative joint disease; bilateral knee pain, status post arthroscopy; and obesity. A.R. 26. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. A.R. 29. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with some additional limitations and was able to perform her past relevant work as an administrative aide. A.R. 29, 32-33.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff makes three arguments: (1) the ALJ erroneously discredited Plaintiff's symptom testimony, (2) the ALJ erroneously rejected a nurse practitioner's opinion, and (3) the ALJ erroneously credited the opinions of non-examining physicians. Doc. 12 at 9-25.

         A. Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony.

         In evaluating a claimant's symptom testimony, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 655 (9th Cir. 2017) (citing Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014)). The claimant is not required to show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of her alleged symptoms, only that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptoms. Id. Second, if there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ may reject the claimant's symptom testimony only by giving specific, clear, and convincing reasons. Id.[1]

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's alleged symptoms: (1) constant low back and knee pain that limits her ability to sit, stand, walk, squat, bend, kneel, climb stairs, and complete chores; (2) impaired concentration that impedes her ability to follow instructions; (3) panic attacks; (4) depression; and (5) the need to “lie down more than once [per] day for one to two hours.” A.R. 30. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence. A.R. 31. The ALJ explained: “To some extent, the alleged severity of the claimant's pain and limitations were less than consistent with her reported daily activities, her recent work history, and her treatment records.” A.R. 31. Plaintiff disputes each of these three reasons.

         1. ...

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