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Williams v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 31, 2017

Joyce E. Williams, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.

         Pending 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.


         On August 1, 2012, Williams filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2010.[1] (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.)

         In evaluating whether Williams was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[2] (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 impairments. (Id.)

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Williams's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [3] 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.)

         The 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.)


         I. Legal Standard

         A 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).

         The ALJ 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 omitted).

         II. Analysis

         A. The Medical Opinions

         “As 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.

         “The 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. 2005).

         Dr. 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.

         1. ...

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