United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. TEILBORG, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
before the Court is Plaintiff Scott Matthewson's
(“Plaintiff”) appeal from the Social Security
Commissioner's (the “Commissioner”) denial of
his application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Doc. 1). This matter
has been fully briefed by the parties.The Court now
rules on Plaintiff's appeal.
parties are familiar with the background information in this
case, and it is summarized in the Administrative Law
Judge's (“ALJ”) decision. (See Doc.
8-3 at 19-31). Accordingly, the Court will reference the
background only as necessary to the analysis below.
ALJ's decision to deny disability benefits may be
overturned “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.
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) (citations
omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible of more than
one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion
which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ
is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the
evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453
(citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This
is because “[t]he trier of fact and not the reviewing
court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the
evidence can support either outcome, the court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.”
Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir.
1992); see Benton, 331 F.3d at 1035 (“If the
evidence can support either outcome, the Commissioner's
decision must be upheld.”).
is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony,
determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must
affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501
(9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
On the other hand, 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)
(internal quotations and citations omitted).
the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and
making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not
disabled. Rather, it is a “fundamental rule of
administrative law” that a reviewing court, in dealing
with a judgement which an administrative agency alone is
authorized to make, may only make its decision based upon
evidence discussed by the agency. Sec. & Exch.
Comm'n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947).
Thus, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons
asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied upon in support
of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d
871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).
when challenging an ALJ's decision, “issues which
are not specifically and distinctly argued and raised in a
party's opening brief are waived.” Arpin v.
Santa Clara Valley Trans. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th
Cir. 2001) (citing Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc., 228
F.3d 1105, 1110 n. 1 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc), vacated
and remanded on other grounds, 535 U.S. 391 (2002));
see also Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554
F.3d 1219, 1226 n. 7 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying the principle
to Social Security appeals). Accordingly, the Court
“will not manufacture arguments for an
appellant.” Arpin, 261 F.3d at 919 (citation
Definition of a Disability
claimant can qualify for Social Security disability benefits
only if he can show that, among other things, he is disabled.
42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). A disability 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 his
“physical or mental impairment or impairments are of
such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous
work but cannot, considering his 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).
The Five-Step Evaluation Process
Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential
process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4); see also Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d
715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). A finding of “not
disabled” at any step in the sequential process will
end the inquiry. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps,
but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the final step.
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721. The five steps are as
the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in
“substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.
second step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a
“severe medically determinable physical or mental
impairment.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If
the claimant does not have a severe impairment, then the
claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(c). A
“severe impairment” is one that
“significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities.”
Id. Basic work activities are the “abilities
and aptitudes to do most jobs, ” such as lifting,
carrying, reaching, understanding, carrying out and
remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to
co-workers, and dealing with changes in routine.”
Id. § 404.1521(b). Additionally, unless the
claimant's impairment is expected to result in death,
“it must have lasted or must be expected to last for a
continuous period of at least 12 months” for the
claimant to be found disabled. Id. § 404.1509.
having found a severe impairment, the ALJ then considers the
severity of the claimant's impairment. Id.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). This requires the ALJ to
determine if the claimant's impairment “meets or
equals” one of the impairments listed in the
regulations. Id. If so, 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 will 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.”
Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). A claimant's RFC is
the most the claimant can still do despite the effects of all
the claimant's medically determinable impairments,
including those that are not severe. Id. §
four, the ALJ determines whether, despite his impairments,
the claimant can still perform “past relevant
work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). To do
this, the ALJ compares the claimant's residual function
capacity with the physical and mental demands of the
claimant's past relevant work.” Id. §
404.1520(f). If the claimant can still perform his past
relevant work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not
disabled. Id. § 1520(a)(4)(iv). Otherwise, the
ALJ proceeds to the final step.
fifth and final step, the ALJ considers whether the claimant
“can make an adjustment to other work” that
exists in the national economy. Id. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the ALJ
considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work
experience. Id. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the ALJ
finds that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work,
then the claimant is not disabled. Id. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v). However, if the ALJ finds that the
claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the
claimant is disabled. Id.
evaluating the claimant's disability under this five-step
process, the ALJ must consider all evidence in the case
record. Id. § 404.1520(a)(3). This includes
medical opinions, records, self-reported symptoms, and
third-party reporting. See Id. §§
The ALJ's Evaluation under the Five Step Process
one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since June 1, 2014, the amended alleged onset date. (Doc. 8-3
at 21). In step two, the ALJ ascertained that Plaintiff had
the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc
disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, anxiety
disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
(Id.). Under the third step, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
the impairments listed in the Social Security Regulations.
(Id. at 22).
moving on to step four, the ALJ conducted an RFC
determination after consideration of the entire record.
(Id. at 23). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had
“the residual functional capacity to perform light work
as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he is able to perform
unskilled work requiring no more than occasional interaction
with coworkers and supervisors.” (Id.).
four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform his
past relevant work as a nurse or communications director.
(Id. at 29). Finally, the ALJ concluded at step five
that based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work
experience, Plaintiff could perform a significant number of
jobs existing in the national economy. (Id. at 30).
Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been
under a disability under the Social Security Act from June 1,
2014 through September 27, 2017-the date of the ALJ's
decision. (Id. at 31).
asserts that the ALJ's denial of his application for
Social Security benefits was not supported by substantial
evidence and rests upon an error of law. (Docs. 1 at 2; 9 at
8, 13, 20). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the Court
should reverse and remand the final decision of the Agency
because the ALJ failed to articulate legally sufficient
reasons for rejecting medical opinions from Plaintiff's
treating physicians, (Doc. 9 at 8), and Plaintiff's
subjective symptom testimony, (id. at 13). Plaintiff
also claims the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff could
perform the identified occupations at step five of ...