United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Jesus Zamora seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding him not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. 13. For the reasons that follow, the Court will remand the case for an award of benefits.
Plaintiff applied for disability and supplemental security insurance benefits in July 2007, alleging disability beginning October 26, 2006. Doc. 14 at 1. After a hearing on April 28, 2009 (A.R. 95-132), an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on August 24, 2009, finding Plaintiff not disabled (A.R. 140-49). The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case for further proceedings. Doc. 14 at 2. A second hearing was held on March 6, 2012 (A.R. 35-88), and the ALJ issued an opinion on April 27, 2012, again finding Plaintiff not disabled (A.R. 13-34). A second request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's April 2012 opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 14 at 2.
II. Legal Standard.
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).
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 at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner. 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 determined that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 26, 2006. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and poly-substance dependence, in sustained remission since 2008. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, " with the following non-exertional limitations: he "retains the ability to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions, " "works best if not working in a team, and in a routine work setting where there is little change and any change can be easily explained." At step five, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision is defective for six reasons: (1) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because it is based solely on the opinions of two State-agency physicians; (2) the ALJ committed legal error in assigning great weight to the opinion of Dr. Bencomo; (3) the ALJ committed reversible error by rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating doctors without specific and legitimate reasons; (4) the ALJ committed legal error by failing to address or consider the Arizona Department of Health's determination that Plaintiff is Seriously Mentally Ill. ("SMI"); (5) the ALJ committed legal error by rejecting third-party statements; and (6) the ALJ committed legal error by discounting Plaintiff's credibility. Doc. 13 at 1-2.
A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
1. Legal Standard.
The Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to one of a non-examining physician. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 1995); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6) (listing factors to be considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length of examining or treating relationship, frequency of examination, consistency with the record, and support from objective evidence). If it is not contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining physician can be rejected only for "clear and convincing reasons." Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988)). A ...