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Shaft v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States District Court, D. Arizona

April 15, 2014

Robert Shaft, Plaintiff,
Social Security Administration Commissioner, Defendant.


DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 24, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 30, 2009. Tr. at 10. The application was denied on September 2, 2010, and upon reconsideration on February 11, 2011. Id. Plaintiff was granted a hearing in which he appeared with counsel before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Patricia Bucci on May 10, 2012. Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. Tr. at 20. The Appeals Council denied review on June 17, 2013 (Tr. at 1), and Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the denial and remand for an award of benefits. Doc. 16. Defendant has filed a memorandum in opposition (Doc. 17), and Plaintiff has filed a reply (Doc. 18). Neither party has requested oral argument. For the reasons that follow, the Court will remand for an award of benefits.

I. Standard of Review.

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. Charter, 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).

For purposes of Social Security benefits determinations, a disability is

the inability to do 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.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1505.

Determining whether a claimant is disabled involves a sequential five-step evaluation. The claimant must show that (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.[1] If at any step the Commission determines that a claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis ends; otherwise, it proceeds. If the claimant establishes his burden through step four, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled unless he finds that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work. 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).

II. Analysis.

The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not worked since August 30, 2009 through the date he was last insured on June 3, 2011. Tr. at 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: status post bilateral total knee replacements with infection, complications, and revision; rheumatoid arthritis; lumbar degenerative disc disease; hypertension; and obesity. Id. The ALJ found at step three that none of the impairments or combination thereof met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. Id. at 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with limited exceptions, including occasional ability to climb ramps or stairs, balance, crouch, kneel, crawl, and stoop. Id. The ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 19. At step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. Id. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 20.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination was based on legal error because (1) she erroneously gave a treating physician's opinion little weight and a non-treating physician's opinion great weight, thereby mischaracterizing Plaintiff's Residual Functioning Capacity ("RFC"); and (2) she failed to consider the side effects of Plaintiff's medications on his ability to work. Doc. 16 at 4. Plaintiff asserts that, upon remand, this matter should be assigned to a new ALJ because Judge Bucci was prejudiced against Plaintiff. Id.

A. Medical Opinions.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step four when she found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work. Doc. 16 at 5. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should not have given little weight to the opinions of treating physician Jaume and Nurse Practitioner May, and that the ALJ improperly gave great weight to non-treating medical opinions from the state agency consultants.

"The ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *2 (July 2, 1996). 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 ...

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