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Zur v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 7, 2017

Daniel Zur, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Daniel Zur ("Zur"), which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, this Court remands the case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 30, 2013, Daniel Zur filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2012. (Tr. 70, 72.) His claim was initially denied on October 23, 2013, and it was denied again upon reconsideration on March 19, 2014. (Tr. 83, 118.) Zur then filed a written request for a hearing, and he testified before ALJ Thomas Cheffms on March 19, 2015. (Tr. 11.) On April 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Zur not disabled. (Tr. 11-20.)

         In evaluating whether Zur was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 12.) At step one, the ALJ found that Zur had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 13.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Zur suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, hypertension, and gout. (Tr. 13-14.) He also found that Zur suffered from nonsevere impairments, including autoimmune disorder, hyperalimentation, Crohn's disease, back pain, acid reflux, chronic renal disease, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. (Tr. 14.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Id.)

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Zur's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), [2] concluding that Zur could "perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), with no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, frequent climbing ramps and stairs, and frequent crouching, kneeling and crawling." (Tr. 14-15.) In making this finding, the ALJ found that Zur's subjective testimony was "not entirely credible." (Tr. 15.) The ALJ gave little to no weight to the treating physicians, Drs. Merritt, Cohen, and Quershi. (Tr. 15-20.) He also gave little weight to Dr. Geary, an examining physician. (Tr. 19.) Instead, he relied on the testimony of state agency's reviewing physicians. (Id.) Likewise, the ALJ rejected the testimony of Zur's licensed social worker/physician assistant, Ms. Monachelli. (Tr. 19.)

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-5.) Zur filed the complaint underlying this action on September 9, 2015, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Doc. 14, 15, 19.)

         ANALYSIS

         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Id. (quotation omitted). "Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). "When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion." Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because "[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).

         II. Analysis

         A. The ALJ Erred In Rejecting the Treating Physicians' Testimony

         "As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who do not treat the claimant." Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended (Apr. 9, 1996). Therefore, if a treating physician's opinion is "not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons." Id. If the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the Commissioner still cannot reject the treating physician's opinion unless he provides "specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id. (internal quotations omitted).

         The ALJ erred in rejecting the testimony of treating physicians Drs. Merritt, Qureshi, and Cohen without sufficiently explained reason for doing so.

         1. Dr. Brock Merritt

         Dr. Merritt was Zur's primary care physician for over eight years. (Tr. 49.) Dr. Merritt examined Zur on four separate occasions. In May of 2012 Dr. Merritt opined that Zur "does not qualify for any physical problems for disability, but may at least partially qualify through psychiatry, " and from fall of 2013 to winter 2014, Dr. Merritt found that Zur could not maintain a full-time job due to his illnesses, specifically due to his Crohn's disease and his bipolar disorder. (Tr. 697-98, 888-90, 1005-6, 1248-49, 1250-52.) The ALJ gave Dr. Merritt's opinion no weight because he claimed that it was "completely unsupported by the record, " relied too heavily on the claimant's subjective testimony and was beyond the scope of a primary care physician. (Tr. 19.) The ALJ went on to note that Dr. Merritt's opinion was contradicted by his internal opinions as well as the state agency's reviewing and consulting opinions, and objective test records.

         The ALJ did not provide "specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record" to justify disregarding Dr. Merritt's testimony, and thus he committed legal error. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. Early on in the opinion, the ALJ provided a list of citations to the record to support the assertion that the "[m]ental and physical exam findings do not support" Zur's allegations. (Tr. 16.) However, the ALJ failed to provide any explanation, parenthetical or otherwise, as to how the cited medical records established inconsistency between Merritt's findings and the objective medical data. The ALJ also did not provide any explanation for declaring that Dr. Merritt's opinions were based on the "claimant's subjective complaints" and that his opinion was "outside the scope of his medical specialty." (Tr. 19.) Furthermore, the ALJ did not adequately support his claim that Dr. Merritt's opinions are internally inconsistent. The ALJ cites to Dr. Merritt's July 2012 opinion that Zur did not qualify for disability to support this claim. (Id.) However, this is not, in and of itself, inconsistent with Dr. Merritt's later assertions that Zur did qualify for disability based on physical ailments.[3] (Id.) Likewise, the ALJ failed to cite to specific examples establishing that Dr. Merritt's opinion was contradicted by the state agency reviewing and examining physicians, and he did not provide a single example demonstrating how Zur's daily activities contradicted Dr. Merritt's findings. (Id.) The ALJ's reasoning was too generalized "to allow the agency's path to be reasonably discerned, " and thus he erred. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012).

         2. Dr. ...


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