United States District Court, D. Arizona
Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge
Michael Heffley seeks review of the Social Security
Administration Commissioner's decision denying him social
security benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1;
Doc. 17.) For reasons below, the Court will affirm the
February 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Application for
disability insurance benefits. (AR at 143-46.) Plaintiff
asserts disability beginning on December 3, 2010.
(Id. at 143.) Plaintiff's Application was
initially denied on September 20, 2012 (id. at 41),
and upon reconsideration on May 8, 2013 (id. at 54).
On June 10, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing.
(Id. at 84-85.) After holding a hearing,
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joan G. Knight denied
Plaintiff's request for benefits in a decision dated July
16, 2014. (Id. at 18.) On August 26, 2015, the
Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
(Id. at 1-5.)
exhausted the administrative review process, on October 29,
2015, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's
decision by filing a Complaint in this Court pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) On March 14, 2016, Plaintiff
filed an Opening Brief, seeking remand of this case to the
Social Security Administration for an award of benefits.
(Doc. 17.) On April 27, 2016, Defendant filed a Response
Brief in support of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc.
22.) On May 10, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief. (Doc.
Standard of Review
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for
judicial review of the Commissioner's disability benefits
determinations. 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); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d
172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). “‘Substantial
evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than
a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable
person might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d
1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Reddick v.
Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).
determining whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision, the Court considers the record as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that
which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions.
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v.
Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is
responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and
determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d
1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court “must uphold
the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to
more than one rational interpretation.”
Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. “However, a
reviewing court 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)). The 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). Moreover, the Court reviews “only the
reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination
and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not
rely.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010
(9th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process
eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must show
an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d
1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A person is under a disability
if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of
such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous
work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful
work which exists in the national economy.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
follows a five-step evaluation process to determine whether
an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act:
The five-step process for disability determinations begins,
at the first and second steps, by asking whether a claimant
is engaged in “substantial gainful activity” and
considering the severity of the claimant's impairments.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(ii). If the
inquiry continues beyond the second step, the third step asks
whether the claimant's impairment or combination of
impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt.
404, subpt. P, app. 1 and meets the duration requirement.
See Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the
claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded,
ending the inquiry. See Id. If the process continues
beyond the third step, the fourth and fifth steps consider
the claimant's “residual functional capacity”
in determining whether the claimant can still do past
relevant work or make an adjustment to other work. See
Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v).
Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir.
2013). “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps
one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step
five.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin.,
554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).
the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff is not disabled and is not entitled to benefits.
(Id. at 18.) At step one, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act through December 31, 2015, and Plaintiff has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 3,
2010, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 12.) At step
two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following
severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the
cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine; degenerative joint
disease of the feet; osteoporosis; status post orchiectomy
with groin pain; and left hip degenerative changes (20 CFR
three, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff] does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR
404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526.).” (Id. at
14.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has
the residual functional capacity to perform a range of
sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except:
[Plaintiff] can frequently climb ramps and stairs and can
occasionally climb ladders ropes and scaffolds. He should
avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, wetness and
vibration and should avoid even moderate exposure to
hazards.” (Id.) The ALJ determined that
Plaintiff could perform his past work as a
manager/distribution warehouse. (Id. at 18.) Given
that finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not
disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social
Security Act. (Id.)
argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinion
evidence, discounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony, and
failing to rely on a hypothetical from the vocational expert
in determining that Plaintiff can perform his past relevant
work. (Doc. 17.) The Court addresses these arguments
Weighing of Medical Opinion Evidence
Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating
physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining
physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830
(9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give greatest
weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight
to the opinion of an examining physician than to one of a
non-examining physician. See Andrews, 53 F.3d at
1040-41; see also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(2)-(6). If it is not contradicted by another
doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining
physician can be rejected only for “clear and
convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830
(citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir.
1988)). “If a treating or examining doctor's
opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an
ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate
reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.”
Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012 (quoting Ryan v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir.
can meet the “specific and legitimate reasons”
standard “by setting out 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). But “[t]he 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, 849 F.2d
at 421-22. “The opinion of a non-examining physician
cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that
justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining
or a treating physician.” Lester, 81
F.3d at 831 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted).
Dr. Brad Hayman's Opinions
complains that the ALJ failed to provide specific and
legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for the
weight given to Dr. Hayman's opinions. (Doc. 17 at 9.)
24, 2013, Dr. Hayman, Plaintiff's treating podiatrist,
completed a Medical Source Statement of Physical Ability to
Do Work-Related Activities. (AR 456-57.) Dr. Hayman opined
that Plaintiff suffers from “severe painful arthritis
of the right 1stmetatarsal phalangeal
joint.” (Id. at 456.) Dr. Hayman further
opined that Plaintiff can occasionally and frequently lift
and/or carry less than five pounds, can stand and/or walk for
less than one hour, can sit for eight hours, needs to elevate
his right leg/foot for 30 minutes every hour, can never
climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and is
unlimited in reaching, handling, fingering, feeling, seeing,
hearing, and speaking. (Id. at 456-57.) Dr. Hayman
stated that Plaintiff does not use an assistive device, and
he opined that ...