United States District Court, D. Arizona
Sylvia P. Velazquez, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.
DOUGLAS L. RAYES, District Judge.
Plaintiff Sylvia Velazquez seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income ("SSI"). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is remanded for further proceedings.
On May 26, 2011, Velazquez applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI, alleging disability beginning on April 1, 2010. (A.R. 193.) She appeared with her attorney and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on February 25, 2013. ( Id. at 36-71.) A vocational expert also testified. ( Id. ) The ALJ found that Velazquez was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. ( Id. at 15-35.) The Appeals Council denied Velazquez's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. ( Id. at 1-7, 11-14.) Thereafter, Velazquez appealed to this Court. (Doc. 1.)
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. 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 ("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 found that Velazquez meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2010. (A.R. 20.) At step two, the ALJ found that Velazquez has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, asthma, diffuse myofascial pain, morbid obesity, suspected arthritis of the knees, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), dysthymia, anxiety disorder with depressive features, and polysubstance dependence, which is in remission. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ determined that Velazquez 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. ( Id. at 21.) At step four, the ALJ found that Velazquez has the RFC to perform:
light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R.] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [Velazquez] can lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; [she] has no limitations in her ability to sit, stand, and/or walk; [she] can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; [she] can occasionally stop and crouch, but can never kneel or crawl; [she] must avoid unprotected heights; and, due to mental health and pain medication side effects, [she] can only perform unskilled routine work in a socially limited and stable environment.
( Id. at 22.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Velazquez is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. ( Id. at 30.) However, at step five the ALJ concluded that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Velazquez could perform, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC. ( Id. )
Velazquez argues that the RFC assessed by the ALJ is inconsistent with the limitations imposed by her impairments. Specifically, she contends that the ALJ improperly discounted: (1) medical opinions that assessed limitations inconsistent with sustained work, (2) Velazquez's symptom testimony, and (3) the third-party report of her daughter. (Doc. 15 at 9-24.)
I. Medical Opinion Evidence
The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinions of non-treating physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). 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. Likewise, an examining physician's opinion generally must be given greater weight than that of a non-examining physician. Id. at 830. As with a treating physician, there must be clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the ...