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Lannon v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 9, 2017

Cynthia Lannon, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Cynthia Lannon applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income in July 2012, claiming to be disabled since May 25, 2010. (AR 205-15.) The applications were denied. (AR 81-82, 140-54.) A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) was held on April 2, 2014, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (AR at 41-80.) The ALJ issued a written decision on May 27, 2014, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act. (AR 12-24.) This became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-6.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 12), the parties briefed the issues for review (Docs. 15, 19, 22). For reasons stated below, Defendant's decision is reversed and the case remanded for an award of benefits.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the Commissioner's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may reverse the decision only where it is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where 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).

         The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id. (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)). The court's review is limited solely to “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination[.]” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Whether a claimant is disabled is determined using a five-step evaluation process. To establish disability, the claimant must show (1) she is not currently working, (2) she has a severe impairment, and (3) her impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional capacity (RFC) precludes her from performing past work. If the claimant meets her burden, the Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is able to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         Plaintiff has met her burden at steps one and two because she has not worked since before the alleged date of disability and has the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease, status post laminectomy and suboccipital craniotomy, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, obesity, and hypertension. (AR 16.) The ALJ found at step three that the impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment. (AR 16-17.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following abilities and limitations: lifting and carrying less than 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; unlimited sitting, standing and walking, frequent stooping and crouching, occasional kneeling and climbing ramps and stairs, but no crawling or climbing ladders; frequent reaching except for overhead, and frequent handling, fingering, and feeling. (AR 17-23.) Based on this RFC and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is not disabled because she can perform her past work as an administrative assistant, accounting clerk, and customer service representative. (AR 23-24.)

         Plaintiff challenges the RFC and step four determinations. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed medical opinions, particularly with respect to her arthritis and headaches. (Docs. 15 at 7-17, 22 at 1-8.) Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting her testimony about her symptoms and limitations. (Id. at 17-20, 8-11.)

         Defendant counters that the ALJ properly resolved conflicts in the medical opinions based on substantial evidence (Doc. 19 at 6-14), and provided sufficient reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's testimony (id. at 15-20). The parties disagree as to whether any remand should be for an award of benefits or further proceedings. (Docs. 15 at 21-22, 19 at 20-21.)

         The Court agrees with Plaintiff that the ALJ erred in weighing medical opinions and discrediting her testimony. The ALJ's decision therefore must be reversed and, for reasons stated below, remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. The ALJ Improperly Weighed Medical Opinions.

         Dr. Richard Kelly has treated Plaintiff since 1990. He completed an RFC questionnaire indicating that Plaintiff suffers from daily neck pain and headaches, pain in her hands due to rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic fatigue. (AR 400.) He opined that due to these impairments, Plaintiff has significant limitations in reaching, handling, and fingering, would need frequent and lengthy breaks during the workday, would miss work more than four times a month, and otherwise is not physically capable of working eight hours a day, five days a week on a sustained basis. (AR 400-01.) In a separate migraine headache questionnaire, Dr. Kelly opined that Plaintiff experiences throbbing headaches in the back of her head and neck and the headaches interfere with her ability to work. (AR 403.)

         Despite the fact that Dr. Kelly had been treating Plaintiff for more than 20 years, the ALJ gave his opinion no weight. (AR 22.) This constitutes legal error, Plaintiff argues, because the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion. The Court agrees.

         A. Standard for Weighing Medical Opinions

         The Commissioner is responsible for determining whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of disability and is not bound by a physician's ultimate conclusion that the claimant is “unable to work” or “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927(d)(1). But the Commissioner generally must defer to a physician's medical opinion, such as statements concerning the nature or severity of the claimant's impairments, the claimant's physical or mental limitations, and what the claimant can still do despite the impairments and limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927(a)(2).

         The regulations make clear that opinions of treating doctors generally should be given more weight than the opinions of other doctors. Id., §§ 404.1527, 416.927(c)(2). “If the ALJ wishes to disregard the opinion of the treating physician, he or she must make findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983). To meet this requirement, the ALJ must provide “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986).

         B. The ALJ Erred in Rejecting the Treating Physician's Opinion

         In this case, the ALJ impermissibly rejected Dr. Kelly's opinion in conclusory fashion. He gave the opinion no weight because it purportedly is “inconsistent with the greater objective medical record.” (AR 22.) This conclusory assertion falls far short of the standard required for rejecting the opinion of a treating physician. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927; Cotton, 799 F.2d at 1408. The law is clear that the ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. “He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421-22 (9th Cir. 1988). The ALJ did not satisfy this burden in concluding, without explanation, that Dr. Kelly's opinion is inconsistent with the “greater objective medical record.” (AR 22.)

         The ALJ further concluded that Dr. Kelly's opinion was “inconsistent with other treatment records” (AR 22), but he does not explain why this is so. The “other treatment records” span more than 100 pages. (Id., citing Exs. 6F, 9F, 19F, & 24F.) In rejecting Dr. Kelly's opinion, however, the ALJ failed to cite to a single individual record that is inconsistent with the opinion. (Id.)

         The ALJ noted that Dr. Kelly contradicted himself by indicating that Plaintiff can walk eight blocks without rest but can stand and walk less than one hour in a normal workday. (AR 22.) Dr. Kelly clarified, however, that Plaintiff can stand and walk for only fifteen minutes at a time. (AR 400.) Moreover, the apparent contradiction does not relate to the most relevant impairments and limitations, namely, Plaintiff's headaches and arthritis, and her limited ability to handle, finger, and feel things and maintain a regular work schedule on a sustained basis. In short, the ALJ failed to explain how any contradiction regarding Plaintiff's ability to walk renders the rest of Dr. Kelly's opinion worthy of no deference.

         Under Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-2p, which provides guidance for the weighing of medical opinions, a treating physician's opinion is still entitled to some deference and must be given appropriate weight even where it is not supported by clinical findings and is inconsistent with other evidence. SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 362211 (July 2, 1996). The ruling provides, in pertinent part:

[ALJ's] must remember that a finding that a treating source medical opinion is not well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques or is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record means only that the opinion is not entitled to “controlling weight, ” not that the opinion should be rejected. Treating source medical opinions are still entitled ...

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