United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell United States District Judge
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.
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.
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
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.
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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 ...