United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Michael McRobie seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding him 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 in October 2009, alleging disability beginning August 30, 2009. Doc. 16 at 1. After a hearing on June 14, 2011, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on July 1, 2011 finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 2; A.R. 24-31. A request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 16 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, he argues that the ALJ abused "his discretion by mischaracterizing the Vocational Expert's testimony and in positing an incomplete hypothetical as he did not include a medical limitation that is well documented in the record[.]" Doc. 15 at 4. Second, the ALJ abused "his discretion in giving less weight to [his] treating physicians and in giving greater weight to state agency consultants[.]" Id. Third, this case should "be reassigned to another [ALJ] because [the ALJ] showed a serious prejudice against the claimant[.]" Id. The Court will consider each argument in turn.
A. Vocational Expert's Testimony.
Plaintiff takes issue with a hypothetical posed by the ALJ to the vocational expert. Id. at 9. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not include a limitation stated by Dr. Griffith, a state agency consulting physician, that Plaintiff "would be limited in his ability to stand, walk, and sit to only 6 hours in an 8-hour workday." Id. at 10. Plaintiff cites DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 850 (9th Cir. 1991), for the proposition that if a hypothetical does not reflect all of a claimant's limitations, "the expert's testimony has no evidentiary value to support a finding that the claimant can perform jobs in the national economy." Doc. 15 at 10. The ALJ's hypothetical, however, instructed the vocational expert to assume "a person of the claimant's age, education, work experience whose (sic) able to perform at the light exertional level[.]" A.R. 66. Agency regulations provide that "the full range of light work requires standing or walking, off and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8 hour workday." SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *6. The 6 hour limitation on standing, sitting, or walking, then, was implicit in the ALJ's hypothetical. It does not appear that the ALJ's hypothetical excluded any of Plaintiff's limitations and the Court accordingly cannot conclude that the ALJ committed legal error.
B. Physician Opinions.
1. Treating Sources.
Plaintiff raises concerns about the ALJ's assessment of opinions from Dr. Williams, Plaintiff's orthopedic surgeon, and Nathan Welly, P.A. Doc. 15 at 11-12. In weighing medical source opinions in Social Security cases, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes among three types of physicians: (1) treating physicians, who actually treat the claimant; (2) examining physicians, who examine but do not treat the claimant; and (3) non-examining physicians, who neither treat nor examine the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinion of a non-treating physician. Id. A treating physician's opinion is afforded great weight because such physicians are "employed to cure and [have] a greater opportunity to observe and know the patient as an individual." Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987). The controverted opinion of a treating or examining physician "can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. ...