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Eldredge v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 24, 2017

Monica Rae Eldredge, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          James A. Teilfeorg Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of Defendant's denial of her claim for social security disability benefits. Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in denying her claim for benefits in four ways: 1) the ALJ failed to give adequate reasons for rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating neurologist, Dr. Patterson; 2) the ALJ posed the wrong question to the vocational expert (“VE”); 3) the examining and non-examining physicians, upon whose opinions the ALJ relied, did not have relevant medical records; and 4) the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms and limitations. (Doc. 9 at 1). The Court will address each of these claims of error below.

         I. Review of ALJ Decision

         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he trier of fact and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in the 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).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). On the other hand, the Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted).

         Finally, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. Rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied on in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         II. Issues on Appeal

         Because some of the errors on appeal argued by Plaintiff build on each other, the Court will not take them in the order presented by Plaintiff.

         A. Whether the Examining and Non-examining Physicians had Substantial Evidence to Consider in Forming their Opinions

         Plaintiff dedicates one sentence of her brief to this argument, which is “The ALJ gave the opinions of Dr. Boatman and Bargan significant weight, their opinions cannot constitute substantial evidence to support the Decision because they did not have any treatment evidence to consider.” (Doc. 9 at 23). Plaintiff cites “fn 2, 20” to support this argument.

         Preliminary, the Court cannot decipher Plaintiff's citation. Footnote 2 of Plaintiff's brief does not reference this topic. The brief does not have a footnote 20. The ALJ's opinion has no footnotes. Thus, Plaintiff has made an argument with no factual or legal support.

         The Court has reviewed the ALJ's decision, which states “Significant weight is further afforded to the January 2013 and July 2013 physical assessments of State disability physicians, Dr. Bargan and Dr. Boatman who, after review of the medical record, assessed the claimant capable of….” (Doc. 8-3 at 31).[1] The ALJ then listed the doctor's conclusions about claimant's ability to work in light of “the medical record as a whole.” Id. The Court has no reason to believe the ALJ or the doctors are lying when the record states that they reviewed the entire medical record. Further, Plaintiff is claiming she has been disabled since April of 2008, so by the 2013 assessments, there was a medical record to review. The Court is unclear as to the exact “treatment evidence” that Plaintiff now complains the doctors did not have the benefit of; however, the Court finds that given Plaintiff's alleged onset date of 2008, assessments in 2013 are adequate to review her medical record and constitute substantial evidence. Accordingly, the ALJ did not commit error in this regard.

         1. Dr. Starace

         Under this same heading, but seemingly completely unrelated to the above argument, Plaintiff argues that although the ALJ claimed to be giving significant weight to the 2011 assessment of State agency physician Dr. Starace, the ALJ failed to give adequate reasons for not incorporating all of Dr. Starace's limitations. (Doc. 9 at 23-24). Plaintiff has not cited, and the Court has not located, any law that requires the ALJ to give explicit reasons for rejecting all or part of a State agency physician's opinion.

         Moreover, as Defendant notes, the ALJ's residual functional capacity almost mirrors the limitations found by Dr. Starace. (Doc. 13 at 8). Therefore, this argument also fails as a matter of fact because the ALJ did include Dr. Starace's limitations. Accordingly, the ALJ did not commit error in this regard.

         B. Claimant's ...

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