United States District Court, D. Arizona
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Tamela Joy Chavez seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is supported by substantial evidence and is not based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
A. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born in August 1967. She has a ninth grade education and is able to communicate in English. Her past work includes retail sales clerk, customer service representative, and cake decorator. She has had full surgical knee replacement of both knees, the left in December 2008 and the right in August 2009. She alleges continued pain in her knees as well as back pain. In addition, she suffers from depression and anxiety.
B. Procedural History
On June 7, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning May 15, 2009. On September 5, 2012, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified.
On October 5, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. On March 15, 2013, Plaintiff sought review by this Court.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a "specific quantum of supporting evidence." Id. As a general rule, "[w]here 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) (citations omitted).
III. FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a "severe" medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.
At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2011, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2009. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder ("COPD"), degenerative disc disease, peripheral neuropathy, obesity, status post bilateral knee replacement, a hypothyroid disorder, status post partial thyroidectomy, an affective disorder, and an anxiety disorder. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:
has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and can occasionally stoop and crouch. The claimant can never kneel and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to the use of moving machinery, except for motor vehicles. She should also avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights. She should avoid irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts and gases. The claimant is further limited to performing simple, unskilled work. As well, she should work in a low-stress job, described as having only occasional changes in the work setting.
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform.
A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Weighing Medical Source Evidence.
1. Legal Standard
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). The Commissioner must give weight to the treating physician's subjective judgments in addition to his clinical findings and interpretation of test results. Id. at 832-33. Generally, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinions of non-treating physicians. Id. at 830. Where a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another physician, it may be rejected only for "clear and convincing" reasons, and where it is contradicted, it may not be rejected without "specific and legitimate reasons" supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id .; Orn, 495 F.3d at 632 (where there is a conflict between the opinion of a treating physician and an examining physician, the ALJ may not reject the opinion of the treating physician without setting forth specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record).
Further, an examining physician's opinion generally must be given greater weight than that of a non-examining physician. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. As with a treating physician, there must be clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining physician, and specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial ...