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Harris v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 15, 2017

Peggy Ann Harris, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Peggy Ann Harris, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the denial of benefits.


         On July 5, 2012, Ms. Harris filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2012. (Tr. 23.) Her claim was initially denied on January 7, 2013, and it was denied again upon reconsideration on September 6, 2013. (Id.) Ms. Harris then filed a written request for a hearing and she testified before ALJ Sheldon P. Zisook on May 22, 2014. (Id.) On October 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Harris not disabled. (Tr. 30.)

         In evaluating whether Ms. Harris was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 23-24.) At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Harris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Harris suffered from paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (“PSVT”), which is a severe impairment. (Tr. 25.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Harris's PSVT did not equal or meet the severity of any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Id.)

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Ms. Harris's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] concluding that Ms. Harris could “perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b).” (Tr. 25-26.) In making this finding, the ALJ found that Ms. Harris's subjective testimony was “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 27.) The ALJ gave little to no weight to the treating physicians, Drs. Griffin and Cantor. (Tr. 28.) Instead, he gave great weight to the testimony of the state agency's reviewing physicians. (Tr. 29.)

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-4.) However, in doing so, the Appeals Council noted that it considered two questionnaires that were previously omitted from the ALJ's decision; a spinal impairment questionnaire submitted by Dr. Michael Steingart and a cardiac impairment questionnaire submitted by Dr. Stephen Cantor. (Tr. 2.) Ms. Harris filed the complaint underlying this action on June 20, 2016, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is now fully briefed. (Docs. 11, 12.)


         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will generally 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). However, in certain instances, such as where the Appeals Council considered evidence not previously considered by the ALJ, the record may be supplemented. See Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012) (“[W]hen the Appeals Council considers new evidence in deciding whether to review a decision of the ALJ, that evidence becomes part of the administrative record, which the district court must consider when reviewing the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence.”). 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 ALJ Properly Evaluated Ms. Harris's Credibility.

         Once a claimant establishes that objective medical evidence illustrates an impairment that could reasonably cause the symptoms alleged, “and there is no evidence of malingering, ‘the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014-15 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1282 (9th Cir. 2006)). This is the most stringent standard required in Social Security cases. Id. To meet it, an ALJ must identify which testimony he considers not credible, and “link that testimony to the particular parts of the record supporting [the ALJ's] non-credibility determination.” Id. The ALJ's opinion “must be sufficiently specific to allow a reviewing court to conclude the adjudicator rejected ...

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