United States District Court, D. Arizona
HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.)
evaluating whether Zur was disabled, the ALJ undertook the
five-step sequential evaluation for determining
disability. (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.)
point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of
Zur's residual functional capacity ("RFC"),
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.)
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.)
Standard of Review
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).
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
The ALJ Erred In Rejecting the Treating Physicians'
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).
erred in rejecting the testimony of treating physicians Drs.
Merritt, Qureshi, and Cohen without sufficiently explained
reason for doing so.
Dr. Brock Merritt
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.
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. (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).