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Heffley v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 28, 2017

Michael Heffley, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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 Commissioner's decision.

         I. Background

         On February 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Application for disability insurance benefits. (AR[1] 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.)

         Having 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. 23.)

         II. Legal Standards

         a. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         In 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).

         b. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process

         To be 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 only:

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).

         The ALJ 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).

         Applying 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 404.1520(c)).” (Id.)

         At step 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.)

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff 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 below.[2]

         a. Weighing of Medical Opinion Evidence

         i. Legal Standard

         The 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. 2008)).

         An ALJ 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).

         ii. Dr. Brad Hayman's Opinions

         Plaintiff 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.)

         On June 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 ...

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