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Shepherd v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 23, 2017

Alice Ann Shepherd, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Alice Ann Shepherd, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 15.) For the reasons set forth below, this Court affirms.


         On October 16, 2012, Ms. Alice Shepherd filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2009.[1] (Tr. 14.) Her claim was initially denied on January 31, 2013, and it was denied again upon reconsideration on August 7, 2013. (Id.) Ms. Shepherd then filed a written request for a hearing and she testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Sheldon Zisook on October 15, 2014. (Tr. 14, 27.) On December 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Shepherd not disabled. (Tr. 27.)

         In evaluating whether Ms. Shepherd was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[2] (Tr. 15-16.) At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Shepherd had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 16, 2012, her application date.[3] (Tr. 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Shepherd suffered from the following severe impairments: history of right tibial fracture, status post ORIF surgery, and an affective disorder. (Tr. 17.) At step two, the ALJ also determined that Ms. Shepherd's asthma, COPD, back and neck impairments are non-severe. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Ms. Shepherd's severe impairments equaled or met 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. Shepherd's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [4] concluding that while Ms. Shepherd could not perform her past relevant work as a warehouse worker, she could “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.967(b), with unlimited lifting and carrying within light lifting limits, no climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and occasional climbing ramps and stairs, unlimited balancing, and occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.” (Tr. 19, 25.)

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-3.) Ms. Shepherd filed the complaint underlying this action on August 10, 2016 seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.)


         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court need 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).[5] 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. 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). However, the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.' ” Id. (citing Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). Nor may the Court “affirm the ALJ's . . . decision based on evidence that the ALJ did not discuss.” Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         II. Analysis

         A. The ALJ Properly Rejected Dr. Muse's Medical Opinions

         “As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who do not treat the claimant.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended (Apr. 9, 1996). Although this is the general rule, an ALJ may properly reject the opinion of a treating physician in favor of a non-examining physician in certain circumstances. If the opinion of a treating physician is not contradicted by another physician, then the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the opinion. Id. However, if a treating physician's medical opinion is contradicted by another physician, then the ALJ can reject his opinion for “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 831. In this case, the opinion of the treating physician was contradicted by another physician, and thus the second standard applies.

         Dr. Muse opined that Ms. Shepherd had marked limitations in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, understand and remember instructions, perform activities on a schedule, maintain normal attendance, sustain ordinary routines, ask questions, and be aware of safety hazards. (Tr. 463-65.) He also found that she was moderately limited in several other aspects of daily functioning, and that she suffered from post-tramatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and an anxiety disorder. (Id.) The ALJ in this case rejected Dr. Muse's medical opinion because he determined that it was 1) inconsistent with the objective medical record, 2) inconsistent with Dr. Muse's own treatment notes, and 3) inconsistent with the findings of Dr. Geary.

         An ALJ may discount the opinion of a treating physician if it is inconsistent with the objective medical record as whole. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (“[A]n ALJ may discredit treating physicians' opinions that are conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole, or by objective medical findings.”) (internal citations omitted). The ALJ specifically noted that Ms. Shepherd's medical records explained that Ms. Shepherd “show[ed] improved mental functioning and overall moderate symptomology in the presence of pharmacological management, and no more than moderate symptoms and limitations in mental functioning.” (Tr. 25.) He also summarized the entirety of Ms. Shephard's medical history in the first half of his opinion, noting that with medication, Ms. Shepherd appeared to be stable. (Tr. 25.) By Ms. Shepherd's own admission, as long as she takes her medication, she is “fine.” (Tr. 25, 458.) She “was also assessed with a GAF of 55, consistent with no more than ...

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