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Valdez-Canez v. Commissioner Of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 30, 2017

Juana Ann Valdez-Canez, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Juana Ann Valdez-Canez seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the ALJ's decision contains reversible error and there are no substantial grounds for doubting that Plaintiff is disabled, the Court will reverse and remand for an award of benefits.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 52 year-old female who previously worked as a stocker, cashier, and telephone operator. A.R. 32. On October 3, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2012. A.R. 20. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on March 27, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 15, 2013. A.R. 20. On November 5, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. A.R. 20. Plaintiff appeared and testified at that hearing with her attorney on November 12, 2014. A.R. 20. Impartial vocational expert Gretchen A. Bakkenson also testified. A.R. 20. On January 21, 2015, ALJ Patricia A. Bucci issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 34. Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review (A.R. 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district 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). 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). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. Id.

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2012. A.R. 23. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status post cervical fusion, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, depressive disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. A.R. 23. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. A.R. 25. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work, except she can occasionally operate foot controls with her left leg and reach overhead with both upper extremities, can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can frequently climb ramps or stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. A.R. 27. Plaintiff must also avoid concentrated exposure to dangerous machinery with moving mechanical parts, as well as exposure to unprotected heights. A.R. 27. Finally, Plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. A.R. 27. At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, but, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. A.R. 32-33.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to give any reason for rejecting the opinion of examining physician Sharon Steingard, D.O.; (2) failing to consider whether Plaintiff met listing 1.04 at step three; and (3) erroneously evaluating the opinion of treating physician Ethan Kennedy, M.D. Doc. 12 at 2. Plaintiff also argues that, at a minimum, the case needs to be remanded to the ALJ to consider lay opinions from Plaintiff's family and friends which were submitted to the Appeals Council. Id.

         Defendant concedes the first two errors and recognizes that they were harmful, but argues that the ALJ properly gave “little weight” to Dr. Kennedy's opinion. Doc. 17 at 4. The parties agree the case should be reversed and remanded, but disagree on whether the case should be remanded for an immediate award of benefits or additional administrative proceedings. Id. The Court will first consider whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Kennedy.

         A. Dr. Kennedy.

         The Commissioner is responsible for determining whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of disability, and need not credit a physician's conclusion that the claimant is “disabled” or “unable to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). But the Commissioner generally must defer to a physician's medical opinion, such as statements concerning the nature or severity of the claimant's impairments, what the claimant can do, and the claimant's physical or mental restrictions. § 404.1527(a)(2), (c).

         In determining how much deference to give a physician's medical opinion, 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 the greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than a non-examining physician. See Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6) (listing factors to be considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length of examining or treating relationship, frequency of examination, consistency with the record, and support from objective evidence).

         If a treating or examining physician's medical opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, the opinion can be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citation omitted). Under this standard, the ALJ may reject a treating or examining physician's opinion if it is “conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole[] or by objective medical findings, ” Batson v. Commissioner, 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004), or if there are significant ...


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