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Sweezy v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 7, 2015

Ronald Sweezy, Jr., Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


D. THOMAS FERRARO, District Judge.

Plaintiff Ronald Sweezy, Jr., 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 Sweezy's Opening Brief, Defendant's Brief, and Sweezy's Reply. (Docs. 24, 28, 32.) The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 17.) Based on the pleadings and the administrative record submitted to the Court, this matter is remanded for further proceedings.


Sweezy filed applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on June 23, 2010. (Administrative Record (AR) 114, 121.) He alleged disability from July 1, 2009. (AR 114, 121.) Sweezy's applications for SSI and DIB were denied upon initial review (AR 58, 59) and on reconsideration (AR 60, 61). A hearing was held on May 9, 2012 (AR 46-57), after which ALJ Norman R. Buls found, at Step Five, that Sweezy was not disabled. (AR 31-40.) The Appeals Council denied Sweezy's request to review the ALJ's decision. (AR 1.)


Sweezy was born on December 8, 1972, making him 36 years of age at the onset date of his alleged disability. (AR 114.) From 1997 to 2008, he worked as a wild land firefighter. (AR 148.)

The ALJ found Sweezy had two severe impairments, L5-S1 disc bulge and paracentral disc protrusion. (AR 33.) The ALJ concluded Sweezy had the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work, with occasional climbing and stooping, frequent kneeling, crouching and crawling. (AR 35.) Sweezy was found unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 39.) At Step Five, the ALJ concluded, based on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, that Sweezy could perform other work available in the national economy. (AR 39-40.)


The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential process to evaluate SSI and DIB claims. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920; 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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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).


Sweezy argues the ALJ committed three errors: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected treating physician Kimberly Carlson's opinion and relied upon the report of an examining physician; (2) the ALJ erroneously evaluated Sweezy's credibility; and (3) the ALJ improperly relied upon the Grids at Step Five.

Medical Opinions

Sweezy argues the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of treating physician Kimberly Carlson, who concluded Sweezy could do less than sedentary work, in favor of the opinion of examining physician Jeri Hassman, who concluded Sweezy could do light work. 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 non-examining 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 ...

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