United States District Court, D. Arizona
Joyce E. Williams, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.
before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Joyce Elaine
Williams (“Williams”), which challenges the
Social Security Administration's decision to deny
benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, this
Court affirms the findings of the ALJ.
August 1, 2012, Williams filed an application for disability
insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of July
1, 2010. (Doc. 18 at 4.) Her claim was initially
denied on November 21, 2012, and it was denied again upon
reconsideration on June 11, 2013. (Tr. 12.) Williams then
filed a written request for a hearing and she testified
before ALJ Ted W. Armbruster on December 17, 2013. (Tr. 12.)
On February 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding
Williams not disabled. (Tr. 12.)
evaluating whether Williams was disabled, the ALJ undertook
the five-step sequential evaluation for determining
disability. (Tr. 13.) At step one, the ALJ found that
Williams had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her application date. (Tr. 14.) At step two, the ALJ
determined that Williams suffered from the following severe
impairments: anxiety and depressive disorder. (Tr. 14.) At
step three, the ALJ determined that neither of these
impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled
any of the Social Security Administration's listed
point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of
Williams's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”),  concluding that Williams could perform
work “at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: the claimant is limited to simple
repetitive tasks and simple unskilled work with occasional
changes in the work-setting; and she can occasionally
interact with co-workers and supervisors, but have no direct
public contact in job performance.” (Tr. 16.) In making
this finding, the ALJ found that Williams's subjective
testimony was “less than fully credible.” (Tr.
17.) The ALJ also gave little weight to Williams's
treating psychiatrist, Dr. Fermo. (Tr. 19- 21.) Instead, he
relied on the opinions of state agency psychological
consultants, finding that their opinion was entitled to
greater weight because it was supported by the objective
medical evidence as well as the claimant's daily
activities. (Tr. 20.)
Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-4.)
Williams filed the complaint underlying this action on
December 28, 2015 seeking this Court's review of the
ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is now
fully briefed. (Docs. 18, 20, 21.)
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 Medical Opinions
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).
However, there are circumstances where an ALJ may properly
reject the opinion of a treating physician in favor of a
non-examining physician. If an opinion is not contradicted by
substantial evidence, then the ALJ must provide clear and
convincing reasons for rejecting the opinion. Id.
However, if a treating physician's medical opinion is
contradicted by substantial evidence in the record, then the
ALJ can reject his opinion for “specific and legitimate
reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the
record.” Id. at 831.
opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself
constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection
of the opinion of either an examining physician or a treating
physician.” Id. However, it may be sufficient
when “consistent with other independent evidence in the
record.” Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144,
1149 (9th Cir. 2001). Further, “when evaluating
conflicting medical opinions, an ALJ need not accept the
opinion of a doctor if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and
inadequately supported by clinical findings.”
Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir.
Fermo is Williams's treating psychiatrist. His opinion
conflicted with the medical opinions of the state agency
psychological consultants, Drs. Pereyra and Koutrakos. (Tr.
20.) Therefore, the ALJ had to provide specific, legitimate
reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record in
order to discount Dr. Fermo's medical opinion.
Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.