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Messinger v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 31, 2017

Janna Messinger, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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 proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff 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.

         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. 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.

         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, but at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. 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)(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. Id.

         At step 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.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff 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.

         A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.

         1. Legal Standard.

         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 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).

         2. ...


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