United States District Court, D. Arizona
Manuel G. Guerrero, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.
D. THOMAS FERRARO, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Manuel Guerrero filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner). (Doc. 1.) Before the Court are Guerrero's Opening Brief, Defendant's Opposition to Opening Brief, and Guerrero's Reply. (Docs. 27, 30, 35.) The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 14.) Based on the pleadings and the administrative record submitted to the Court, this matter is remanded for further proceedings.
Guerrero filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on October 26, 2009, and for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on November 29, 2010. (Administrative Record (AR) 146, 150.) He alleged disability from March 27, 2002. (AR 146, 150.) At a hearing, Guerrero amended the onset date to October 8, 2003. (AR 993.) Guerrero's last date insured was June 30, 2006. (CITE) Guerrero's application for SSI was denied because his income was too high. (AR 59.) Guerrero's application for DIB was denied upon initial review (AR 54-58, 73-75) and on reconsideration (AR 81-83). A hearing was held on May 17, 2012 (AR 976-1003); at the end of which ALJ Laura Speck Havens concluded she needed additional records and a supplemental hearing with a vocational expert and a medical expert. (AR 999-1001.) A second hearing was held on August 12, 2012. (AR 925-75.) ALJ Havens found, at Step Five, that Guerrero was not disabled. (AR 23-30.) The Appeals Council considered additional evidence and denied Guerrero's request to review the ALJ's decision. (AR 5-6.)
Guerrero was born on September 1, 1965, making him 43 years of age at the onset date of his alleged disability. (AR 146.) From 1999 to 2002, he was a truck driver. (AR 983.) On March 25, 2002, he injured his back on the job and has not worked since then.
The ALJ found Guerrero had two severe impairments, status post L5-S1 hemilaminectomy and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. (AR 25.) The ALJ concluded Guerrero had the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, with a limitation to occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling. (AR 26.) Guerrero was found unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 29.) At Step Five, the ALJ concluded, based on testimony of a Vocational Expert, that Guerrero could perform other work available in the national economy.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential process to evaluate DIB claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-462 (1983). To establish disability the claimant bears the burden of showing he (1) is not working; (2) has a severe physical or mental impairment; (3) the impairment meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; and (4) claimant's RFC precludes him from performing his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant has the RFC to perform other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). If the Commissioner conclusively finds the claimant "disabled" or "not disabled" at any point in the five-step process, she does not proceed to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
"The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989)). The findings of the Commissioner are meant to be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)). The court may overturn the decision to deny benefits only "when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001). This is so because the ALJ "and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 400 (1971)); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). The Commissioner's decision, however, "cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Reviewing courts must consider the evidence that supports as well as detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975).
The critical issue in this case is when Guerrero became disabled. The ALJ noted that Guerrero was, without question, disabled by 2012 (AR 1000); however, the question is whether he was disabled before his last insured date. Although the Court reviewed the entire record, it focuses on the period between October 8, 2003 (alleged onset date) and June 30, 2006 (last date insured).
Guerrero argues the ALJ committed four errors: (1) the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical evidence and opinions of Guerrero's treating providers; (2) the ALJ erroneously evaluated Guerrero's credibility; (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider lay testimony; and (4) the ALJ's Step Five evaluation was improper.
Guerrero argues the ALJ should have given more weight to the opinions of medical doctors Gingerich, Berens, Grimes and Hassman, and Francisco Sanchez, PhD.
Generally, a treating physician's opinion is afforded more weight than the opinion of an examining physician, and an examining physician's opinion is afforded more weight than a nonexamining or reviewing physician's opinion. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001). When there are contradictory medical opinions such as there are in this case, to reject a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must provide "specific and ...