United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division
KIMBERLY J. BUCHANAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CAROLYN S. OSTBY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Kimberly J. Buchanan ("Buchanan") seeks judicial review of Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383(c). Cmplt. (ECF 2).  On October 31, 2014, upon the parties' written consent, this matter was assigned to the undersigned for all proceedings. Notice of Assignment (ECF 12).
On December 24, 2014, Buchanan filed her opening brief. Buchanan's Br. (ECF 13). On January 22, 2015, the Commissioner filed her response brief. Commissioner's Br. (ECF 15). And on March 9, 2015, Buchanan filed her reply brief. Buchanan's Reply Br. (ECF 18). Having reviewed the Administrative Record ("AR") and the parties' arguments, the Court rules as set forth below.
I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
This is Buchanan's second case before this Court seeking judicial review of a Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her claims for benefits.
A. Buchanan I
In her first case, Buchanan v. Astrue, CV 12-149-BLG-RFC-CSO (" Buchanan I "), Buchanan applied for DIB and SSI on January 12, 2010, claiming that her disability began on April 18, 2009. AR 105. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her applications initially and on reconsideration. Id. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and issued a written decision denying Buchanan's claims for benefits after finding her not disabled as of the August 24, 2011 decision date. AR 105-14. On September 28, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Buchanan's request for review. AR 115-20.
On November 30, 2012, Buchanan filed an action in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. Buchanan I, Cmplt. (ECF 5); AR 123-26. On July 9, 2013, the undersigned issued an Order affirming the Commissioner's decision denying DIB and SSI. Buchanan I, Order (ECF 34) at 27. The Clerk of Court entered Judgment. Buchanan I, Judgment (ECF 35).
On August 27, 2013, Buchanan filed a Notice of Appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Buchanan I, Notice of Appeal (ECF 38). As of the date of this Order, the appeal of Buchanan I remains pending with the Ninth Circuit. Buchanan v. Colvin, 13-35783 (9th Cir.).
B. Buchanan's Present Case
In the case now before the Court, on October 27, 2012, Buchanan protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI claiming an onset-ofdisability date of August 25, 2011 - that is, the day following the ALJ's decision in Buchanan I. AR 12, 261-65, 267-73. She claims to be disabled based on limitations imposed by right shoulder degenerative joint disease, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral knee degenerative changes with chondromalacia, lumbar and thoracic degenerative disc disease, personality disorder, and depression. ECF 2 at 2; AR 14. The SSA denied her applications initially and upon reconsideration. AR 134-35, 160-61.
On March 19, 2014, an ALJ held a hearing, at which Buchanan was present with an attorney representing her. AR 28-101. On April 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Buchanan's claims for DIB and SSI. AR 12-22.
On June 24, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Buchanan's request for review making the ALJ's decision final for purposes of judicial review. AR 1-5 ; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (2013). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court's review is limited. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's decision only where the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or where the decision is based on legal error. Garcia v. Commr. of Soc. Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 929 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Ryan v. Commr. of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
The Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, and cannot affirm the ALJ "by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in the testimony, and resolving ambiguities in the record. Treichler v. Comm'n of Soc. Security, 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). "Where 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) (internal citation omitted).
III. BURDEN OF PROOF
A claimant is disabled for purposes of the Act if: (1) the claimant has a 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 twelve months, and (2) the impairment or impairments are of such severity that, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, the claimant is not only unable to perform previous work, but the claimant cannot "engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Schneider v. Commr. of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 974 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(B)).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).
1. The claimant must first show that he or she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098.
2. If not so engaged, the claimant must next show that he or she has a severe impairment. Id.
3. The claimant is conclusively presumed disabled if his or her impairments meet or medically equal one contained in the Listing of Impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (hereafter "Listing of Impairments"). Id. If the claimant's impairments do not meet or medically equal one listed in the regulations, the analysis proceeds to the fourth step.
4. If the claimant is still able to perform his or her past relevant work, he or she is not disabled and the analysis ends here. Id. "If the claimant cannot do any work he or she did in the past, then the claimant's case cannot be resolved at [this step] and the ...