United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell United States District Judge
Janna Messinger 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. Because the
decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
is based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will
be vacated and the matter remanded for further administrative
is a 54 year-old female who previously worked as a Forrest
Technician and Maintenance Worker. On April 11, 2013,
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging
disability beginning January 21, 2012. On June 23, 2015, she
appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before
the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On July 9, 2015,
the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals
Council denied review, 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. 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 Act 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.
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, but at step five, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner. 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)(ii). 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 he 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
2012, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 21, 2011. At step two, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
“degenerative disc disease (DDD), degenerative joint
disease, and arthritis (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).” A.R. 14.
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. 15. At step four, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform “light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), sitting, standing or
walking six hours each out of an eight hour day, with
additional limitations. The claimant is additionally limited
to climbing, kneeling, stooping, balance, crouching, or
crawling occasionally.” A.R. 16. The ALJ further found
that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant
work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering
Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.
argues the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons:
(1) the ALJ erred in giving Dr. Oscar Andrade's
assessment reduced weight, and (2) the ALJ erred in her
analysis of Plaintiff's credibility.
Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
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 discrepancies between
the physician's opinion and her clinical records,
Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir.
2005). When a treating or examining physician's opinion
is contradicted by another doctor, it can be rejected
“for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported
by substantial evidence in the record.”
Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citation omitted). To
satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must set out “a
detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting
clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and
making findings.” Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d
1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986). Under either standard,
“[t]he ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He
must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they,
rather than the doctors', are correct.” Embrey
v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421-22 (9th Cir. 1988).