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Leach v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 16, 2017

Wendy Jo Leach, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Wendy Jo Leach, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny disability benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, this Court affirms the findings of the ALJ.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 18, 2012, Ms. Leach protectively filed an application for disability benefits as well as an application for supplemental security income. (Tr. 24.) Both applications alleged a disability onset date of October 1, 2009. (Id.) Both claims were initially denied on March 4, 2013, and they were denied again upon reconsideration on September 27, 2013. (Id.) Ms. Leach then filed a written request for a hearing and she testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Randolph E. Schum. (Id.) On March 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Leach not disabled. (Tr. 39.)

         In evaluating whether Ms. Leach was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 25-26.) At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Leach had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 26.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Leach suffered from the following severe impairments: pseudo seizures, obesity, depression, and anxiety.[2] (Tr. 26.) At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Tr. 28.)

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Ms. Leach's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [3] concluding that Ms. Leach could “perform light work “lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and [10] pounds frequently” and that Ms. Leach “is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and non- detailed tasks, ” although she “should not work in a setting which includes constant and/or regular contact with the general public” or “more than infrequent handling of customer complaints.” (Tr. 30.) In making these findings, the ALJ relied upon the opinion of examining physician Dr. Mather, “specifically the assessment that there was evidence of malingering.” (Tr. 35.) The ALJ gave no weight to the other examining physician, Dr. Geary, or the nurse practitioner, Mrs. Naomi Brown. (Tr. 36.)

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-4.) Ms. Leach filed the complaint underlying this action on October 4, 2016, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) The matter is now fully briefed before this Court. (Docs. 13, 14.)

         ANALYSIS

         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will 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). 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. See 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).

         II. Analysis

         A. Dr. Geary

         “When presented with conflicting medical opinions, the ALJ must determine credibility and resolve the conflict.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195 (9th Cir. 2004). To reject the testimony of Dr. Geary, a contradicted examining physician, an “ALJ must provide specific, legitimate reasons based on substantial evidence in the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). The ALJ noted that Dr. Geary's examination conflicted with another examining psychologist, Dr. Mather. (Tr. 35-36.) Dr. Mather performed a series of various tests to determine if Ms. Leach was malingering, and while he did not find “definitive evidence” of malingering, he ultimately determined that “[h]er performance across tests of effort/malingering calls into question this Claimant's performance across all neuropsychological measures administered.” (Tr. 451.) Dr. Geary had a different assessment of her performance when he examined her not long before the hearing, finding that “Ms. Leach extended proper and genuine effort at all times” during her exam. (Tr. 1763.) The ALJ ...


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