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Weirick v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 13, 2018

Linda Weirick, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Linda Weirick's (“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner”) denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 14 at 1). On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by performing analysis and making findings that were not supported by the record, inappropriately evaluating medical opinion evidence, and incorrectly evaluating Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. (Id. at 11-13, 19). The Court now rules on Plaintiff's appeal.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was forty-seven years old on February 1, 2012, which she alleges was the onset date of her disability. (Id. at 2). Plaintiff has a high school education and past work experience as a billing clerk, billing supervisor, and lost claim clerk. (Id., Tr. 49). Plaintiff claims that she cannot work due to constant pain in her back and pelvis, as well as urinary incontinence, which make it difficult for her to sit and stand for long periods of time or lift more than ten to fifteen pounds. (Doc. 14 at 2). Plaintiff asserts that medications limit her ability to concentrate and focus on tasks, and fail to provide sustained pain relief. (Id.)

         On October 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II Application for SSDI benefits. (Id. at I, Tr. 21). Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on April 29, 2014, and denied again on reconsideration on October 16, 2014. (Tr. 21). Plaintiff subsequently filed a written request for hearing on October 28, 2014, and appeared and testified at a hearing on February 25, 2016. (Id.) The ALJ issued a decision on March 24, 2016, concluding that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act for the relevant dates. (Id. at 21, 33). The Appeals Council denied review on August 18, 2017, making the ALJ's decision to deny benefits the Commissioner's final decision. (Id. at 1). This appeal followed.

         II. Legal Standard

         A reviewing court, in dealing with a judgment from an administrative agency which it alone is authorized to make, may rely only on evidence discussed by the ALJ in making its decision. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947); see Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). Thus, this Court's review is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and evidence supporting those reasons. See Connett, 340 F.3d at 874.

         A. Definition of a Disability

         A claimant can qualify for Social Security disability benefits only if she can show that, among other things, she is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). A disability, as relevant to this matter, [1] is defined as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Id. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         A person is disabled only if her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating a claim of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(h); see also Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1034 (9th Cir. 2003). If the ALJ determines that the claimant is “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step of the inquiry, the ALJ ends the evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ does not make such a finding, the ALJ will proceed to the next step in the process. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but that burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tacket v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         In making a determination on the claimant's disability through the five-step process, the ALJ must “consider all evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(3). This evidence includes medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and third-party reporting. See Id. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529; SSR 06-3p, 71 Fed. Reg. 45593-03 (Aug. 9, 2006).

         i. Substantial Gainful Activity

         At the first step of the evaluation process, the ALJ determines if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of February 1, 2012 through her date last insured of December 31, 2015.” (Tr. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to the next step in the evaluation process.

         ii. Severe Medical Impairments

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). “If [the claimant] do[es] not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . [the ALJ] will find that [the claimant is] not disabled.” Id. A “severe impairment” is one which “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities are “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” Id. § 404.1522(b). Examples of basic work activities include:

(1) Physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) Capacities for setting, hearing and speaking; (3) Understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) Use of judgment; (5) Responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and (6) Dealing with changes in a routine work setting.


         Additionally, unless the claimant's impairment is expected to result in death, “it must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months” for the claimant to be found disabled. Id. § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)).

         The ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff suffered from two physical impairments: genitourinary disorder and spine disorder. (Tr. 24). The ALJ relied on evidence in the medical record which “substantiate[d] [Plaintiff's] allegations that these impairments imposed more than a minimal impact on [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work activities for a continuous period of twelve consecutive months.” (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not suffer from any severe mental impairments. (Id. at 24-25).

         Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from two physical medical impairments, she continued to the next step.

         iii. Severity of Impairments and Residual Functional Capacity

         At the third step, having found a medically determinable impairment, the ALJ must consider the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). This consideration requires that the ALJ determine if the impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in the regulations. Id. If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, and meets the duration requirement, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled. Id. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the ALJ must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” Id. § 404.1520(e). In assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ will consider the claimant's “impairment(s), and any related symptoms, such as pain, [that] may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [the claimant] can do in a work setting. [The claimant's] residual functional capacity is the most [the claimant] can still do despite [the claimant's] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1).

         The ALJ considered the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 and found that Plaintiff did not have any impairments that met or equaled one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 26); 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. The ALJ specifically considered the 1.00 series of listings (musculoskeletal system) and the 6.00 series of listings (genitourinary disorders). (Tr. 26). Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC with “careful consideration of the entire record.” (Id.)

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to “perform light work . . . except the claimant can stand/walk for two hours at a time before needing to sit for 10 minutes; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; frequently stoop; and frequently reach overhead with the right upper extremity.” (Id.) The ALJ additionally determined that Plaintiff could “never be around unprotected heights[, ] . . . [could] occasionally operate a motor vehicle[, ] . . . [was] limited to frequent exposure to humidity, wetness, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants[, and] . . . [was] limited to simple work-related decisions when dealing with changes in the work setting.” (Id.) Finally, the ALJ concluded that, “in addition to normal breaks, ” Plaintiff would be “off task 5 percent of the time in an eight-hour workday.” (Id.)

         iv. Ability to Perform Past Relevant Work

         At the fourth step, the ALJ considers the claimant's ability to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The ALJ compares the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform her past relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

         Plaintiff's past relevant work included experience as a billing clerk, billing supervisor, and loss claim clerk. (Tr. 31). The ALJ, relying on the previously-determined RFC and testimony from an impartial vocational expert, found that Plaintiff ...

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