United States District Court, D. Arizona
NEIL V. WAKE, District Judge.
Plaintiff Barbara Flint 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.
Plaintiff was born in May 1969 and was 40 years old on her alleged onset date. She has completed one year of college. From 2000 to July 2009, she worked for an insurance company in several positions, which included administrative assistant and a long term disability claims analyst. Plaintiff's neck condition began with a work-related injury in 2002. Beginning in 2005, she had three neck surgeries and a spinal cord stimulator implanted in her hip, but she continues to have pain in her neck and right shoulder. She began receiving short-term disability benefits in June 2009 and long-term disability benefits in January 2010. At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff continued receiving long-term disability benefits and remained an employee of the insurance company.
On August 10, 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning July 7, 2009. On June 13, 2012, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On July 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 November 22, 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); accord Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) ("Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.").
Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.
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 March 31, 2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 7, 2009, the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, cervical degenerative disc disease status post fusion in 2008, right shoulder osteoarthritis, hypertension, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and history of regional complex pain syndrome. 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 she can occasionally lift/carry 10 pounds; stand/walk 6 hours in an 8 hour workday; sit 6 hours in an 8 hour workday; she can occasionally push/pull with her right upper extremity; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasional ramps and stairs; she can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch and crawl; she can frequently kneel; occasional reaching overhead with her right upper extremity; avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold and excessive vibration; avoid all exposure to dangerous machinery with moving mechanical parts and unprotected height; and she can frequently handle and finger with her dominant right hand.
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a policy administrator, claims examiner, insurance clerk, and administrative assistant.
A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Weighing Medical Source Opinion 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. 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. at 830; Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007) (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 evidence in the record, for rejecting an examining physician's contradicted opinion. Id. at 830-31.
The opinion of a non-examining physician is not itself substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either a treating physician or an examining physician. Id. at 831. "The opinions of non-treating or non-examining physicians may also serve as substantial evidence when the opinions are consistent with independent clinical ...