United States District Court, D. Arizona
DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Nels Leslie Madsen seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision finding him not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. 16. The Court will affirm the decision.
Plaintiff applied for disability and supplemental security insurance benefits in September 2010, alleging disability beginning in January 2008. Doc. 17 at 1. After a hearing on September 25, 2012, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion on November 28, 2012, finding Plaintiff not disabled (A.R. 13-24). Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 17 at 1.
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).
A. Five-Step Sequential Evaluation.
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 ("RFC") 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 RFC, 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 September 15, 2010. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following impairments which are severe when considered in combination: "low back pain due to degenerative changes; leg pain, status-post a motorcycle accident in January 2012 resulting in tibial plateau fracture, treated initially with external fixation and later open reduction, internal fixation, and status-post another motorcycle accident in August 2012; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); mild to moderate degenerative changes of the bilateral hips; depression; and drug and alcohol abuse, in questionable remission[.]" A.R. 15. At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals 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 RFC to perform light work with restrictions as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has postural restrictions and is unable to climb, squat, kneel, crouch, or crawl, has lower extremity limitations consisting of no use of the legs or feet for pushing or pulling of foot or leg controls; needs a sit/stand option which allows him to alternate between sitting and standing while still performing his job duties; and is limited to unskilled work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of two treating physicians, Drs. Nudelman and Heiner. Doc. 16 at 8.
A. 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 ...