United States District Court, D. Arizona
JAMES A. TEILBORG, Sinior District Judge.
Plaintiff filed for social security disability benefits. After a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Plaintiff's application was denied. Doc. 11-3 at 14-25. Plaintiff has appealed that denial to this Court.
Plaintiff alleges three claims of error on appeal: 1) the ALJ improperly rejected the testimony of the treating physician; 2) the ALJ misinterpreted the opinion of a consulting physician; and 3) the ALJ did not have substantial evidence upon which to discredit the testimony of Plaintiff. Doc. 12 at 2.
I. Factual background
The parties are familiar with the factual background in this case, and it is summarized in the ALJ's decision. Doc. 11-3 at 14-25. Therefore, the Court will reference it only as necessary to the decision below.
II. Review of ALJ's Decision
The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, this Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Id. If there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990). Additionally, the ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before this Court, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision and the decision is free of legal error, this Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
III. Claims of Error on Appeal
Before the Court turns to the particular claims of error on appeal, the Court notes that an overarching argument of Plaintiff appears to be that the ALJ did not properly address Plaintiff's substance abuse. The Government has summarized the law regarding the ALJ's obligations regarding a claimant's substance abuse as follows:
In cases where an ALJ finds that a claimant who is abusing drugs or alcohol is disabled, she must undertake a "DAA" analysis as to whether such substance abuse is material to the finding of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535; see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(J); Social Security Ruling (SSR) 13-2p, 78 Fed. Reg. 11, 939, 11, 941 (Feb. 20, 2013). If the ALJ determines pursuant to the DAA analysis that the individual would not be found disabled absent the substance abuse, then she must find the claimant not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535; SSR 13-2p, 78 Fed. Reg. at 11, 941. As here, where the ALJ finds that the claimant is not disabled regardless of his substance abuse, she need not conduct the DAA analysis.
Doc. 15 at 8, n.4. Plaintiff does not dispute this summary of the law. However, Plaintiff does argue that without doing a DAA analysis, the ALJ nonetheless used Plaintiff's substance abuse as a basis to find Plaintiff not disabled. The Court will address this issue in the context of each of Plaintiff's arguments below.
A. ALJ's rejection of the treating physician's opinion
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the testimony of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Nagella. Doc. 12 at 5.
"Where a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 956-57 (9th Cir.2002). However, the ALJ can reject the opinion of a treating physician in favor of the conflicting opinion of another examining physician "if the ALJ makes findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.'" Id. at 957 (quoting Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir.1989))."
Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).
In this case, Dr. Nagella treated Plaintiff on March 12, 2010, and diagnosed Plaintiff with various mental limitations. Doc. 11-3 at 22. The ALJ rejected Dr. Nagella's diagnosis for two reasons. First, the ALJ found that Dr. Nagella accepted Plaintiff's subjective complaints without regard to Plaintiff's on-going substance abuse. Doc. 11-3 at 23. Second, the ALJ found that Dr. Nagella's opinion was not supported by the greater record, regardless of Plaintiff's substance abuse. Id.
The record in this case reveals that Plaintiff has a long and significant history of substance abuse. Doc. 11-3 at 19 (finding a history of Plaintiff abusing heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, alcohol, and Seroquel (obtained from a friend), and misuse of Plaintiff's own prescription medications). However, as the Government noted in footnote 4 of its brief, the ALJ determined that even while using all of these drugs, Plaintiff was not disabled. Therefore, the ALJ did not have to do a DAA analysis. Conversely, Plaintiff argues that if his drug use was the basis to discredit, for example, the opinion of his treating physician, then the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff is not ...