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Hurst v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 25, 2017

Thomas Hurst, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOUGLAS L. RAYES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Thomas Hurst applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) in February 2014, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2013. After state agency denials, Hurst appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A vocational expert (“VE”) also was present and testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Hurst was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). The ALJ's decision became the agency's final decision after the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Hurst's request for review. Hurst now seeks judicial review of that decision. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration is reversed and this matter remanded for an award of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the SSA, 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. 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. 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. 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. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she 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. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Hurst meets the insured status requirements of the SSA through September 30, 2016, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 14.) The ALJ found at step two that Hurst's hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, degenerative disc disease, history of sinus tachycardia, autonomic dysfunction, orthostatic intolerance, depressive disorder, and personality disorder are severe impairments, but concluded at step three that they do not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 14-15.) At step four, the ALJ found that Hurst has the RFC to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following exceptions. The claimant should not be exposed to hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. He is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine and repetitive work tasks involving simple instructions. In addition, the claimant is limited to occasional public contact.

(Id. at 18-19.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Hurst is unable to perform his past relevant work. (Id. at 22.) At step five, however, after considering Hurst's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Hurst can perform. (Id. at 22-23.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Hurst is not disabled within the meaning of the SSA. (Id. at 24.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” 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. 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). The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (internal quotations and citation omitted). Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Hurst argues that the ALJ erroneously rejected the assessments of his three treating physicians and his own testimony about the severity of his symptoms. (Doc. 13 at 1.) Hurst also argues that the ALJ erred by not articulating a basis for her RFC finding, but admits that this issue is moot if the Court finds in his favor on any of the other grounds. (Id. at 1, 22-23.) Finally, Hurst requests that the Court remand the matter for an immediate award of benefits instead of for further proceedings. Having reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Seth Kauffman, Hurst's treating neurologist, and that had the ALJ credited Dr. Kauffman's opinion she would have been compelled to find Hurst disabled. Because this conclusion is dispositive, the Court does not reach Hurst's alternative assignments of error.

         I. The ALJ Improperly Rejected the Opinion of Dr. Kauffman

         Dr. Kauffman completed the agency's “Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment” form in April 2014. (A.R. 424-31.) He opined that Hurst could: (1) frequently lift less than 10 pounds and only occasionally lift 20, (2) stand and/or walk for less than 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, and (3) sit less than 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. (Id. at 425.) He also opined that Hurst was limited in his ability to push and pull with both upper and lower extremities; that he could never balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; that he could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; that he was limited in his ability to reach, handle, finger, and feel; and that he should avoid all exposure to extreme cold and heat, humidity, fumes, and hazardous machinery. (Id. at 426-28.) Additionally, though he did not assess formal limitations in speaking, Dr. Kauffman noted that Hurst's shortness of breath is exacerbated when “talking too long.” (Id. at 428.) Dr. Kauffman based his opinions on Hurst's autonomic dysfunction and results from tilt table testing, and cited concerns that engaging in these activities would exacerbate Hurst's symptoms, such as shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and loss of consciousness. (Id. at 425, 428.)

         A treating physician's opinion is entitled to substantial deference. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). More weight generally should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinions of non-treating physicians because treating physicians are “employed to cure and [have] a greater opportunity to observe and know the patient as an individual.” Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987). Thus, where a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another physician it may be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons, and where it is ...


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