United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Selia Ybarra seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding her not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. 12. For the reasons that follow, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's decision.
Plaintiff applied for disability and supplemental security insurance benefits on October 6, 2009, alleging disability beginning September 1, 2009. Doc. 12 at 1. After a hearing on August 19, 2011, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on October 5, 2011 finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 2; A.R. 13-24. A request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 12 at 2.
II. Legal Standard.
Defendant's decision to deny benefits will be vacated "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). "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." Id. In determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the decision and the evidence that detracts from it. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). If there is sufficient evidence to support the Commissioner's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).
Determining whether a claimant is disabled involves a sequential five-step evaluation. The claimant must show (1) he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful employment, (2) he has a severe physical or mental impairment, and (3) the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity ("RFC") precludes him from performing his past work. If at any step the Commissioner determines that a claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis ends; otherwise it proceeds to step five. If the claimant establishes his burden through step four, the Commissioner bears the burden at step five of showing that the claimant has the RFC to perform other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).
Plaintiff advances three arguments as to why the ALJ's decision was erroneous. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly characterize Plaintiff's cervical degenerative disc disease and missed the Plaintiff's lumbar degenerative disc disease, rotator cuff degeneration, carpal tunnel syndrome, and short term memory loss. Doc. 12 at 11. Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to obtain testimony from a vocational expert. Id. at 13. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mischaracterized her testimony. Id. at 15. The Court will consider each argument in turn.
A. Residual Functional Capacity Assessment.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment was incomplete because the ALJ failed to properly characterize some of her alleged impairments. Doc. 12 at 11. Plaintiff points to specific evidence that she contends is contrary to the ALJ's RFC assessment. For example, she cites a consultative exam by Dr. Chaffee, which she alleges "showed evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome with a positive Tinel's sign and a diminished pinprick sensation over her right thumb and second and third fingers." Id. (citing A.R. 346). In the cited document, however, Dr. Chaffee clearly noted that he did not believe that Plaintiff had any conditions that would impose any limitations for 12 continuous months. A.R. 346.
Plaintiff argues that she suffers from significant degenerative disc disease which the ALJ erroneously characterized as "occasional neck stiffness." Doc. 12 at 11. As support, she cites MRI results from October 2002 (A.R. 227), which is well outside the relevant time period at issue (September 1, 2009 through August 19, 2011). She also cites a 2011 x-ray report which showed "mild degenerative disc disease" and "moderate diffuse osteoarthritis." Doc. 12 at 12. This report, however, was considered and cited by the ALJ in his opinion. A.R. 20. The ALJ noted that "the objective medical evidence reveals only mild degenerative disc disease" ( id. ), that there was "no evidence in the record of bulging discs" ( id. ), that Plaintiff reported only "occasional neck stiffness" at an exam in September 2010 ( id. ), and that "the record reflects no actual treatment for the alleged back and neck pain aside from her report to the consultative examiner that she takes Tylenol for pain... and her primary care provider's instruction to lose weight" ( id. ). Plaintiff cites no evidence in the record that is inconsistent with this determination. That Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ's assessment, without more, does not constitute legal error.
Plaintiff cites a March 2009 x-ray showing that "she had rotator cuff degeneration" (A.R. 293) and an October 2010 evaluation wherein she was diagnosed with "bilateral mild acromioclavicular joint degenerative joint disease" ( id. at 454). She states that the ALJ "made no reference to [her] rotator cuff in his decision." Doc. 12 at 12. Plaintiff ignores, however, that the March 2009 x-ray results refer to the rotator cuff irregularity as "mild" and state that Plaintiff's shoulder is "stable since the previous study of 2008[.]" A.R. 293. Plaintiff also does not explain why these documents are inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC assessment. The Court therefore cannot conclude that the ALJ committed legal error by not explicitly discussing these reports in his opinion.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to mention the opinions of two examining doctors, Drs. Bradley and Steingard. Doc. 12 at 13. She cites Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1160 (9th Cir. 2012), for the proposition that an ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons to reject an examining physician's opinion. Id. Although Plaintiff cites a valid standard, nothing in the record indicates that the ALJ rejected the opinions of Drs. Steingard and Bradley. Moreover, their opinions appear to be consistent with the ALJ's conclusions. Dr. Bradley opined that Plaintiff was "limited to simple tasks" and limited to work without any public contact and with minimal interaction with peers. A.R. 366. He further opined that there were no limitations for work in a low stress environment with minimal interaction with peers. Id. Dr. Steingard found that Plaintiff would need to have some instructions repeated at work, that she was able to maintain concentration over the course of the interview, that she would be sensitive to criticism at work, that her interaction was ...