United States District Court, D. Arizona
Heather L. Gilliland, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
before the Court is Plaintiff Heather Gilliland's appeal
of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny
benefits. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the
Court affirms the decision.
October 15, 2012, Heather Gilliland applied for disability
insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of June
1, 2011. (Tr. 16.) Gilliland's claim was denied both
initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) She then
appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
(Id.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on
May 21, 2014. (Tr. 41.)
evaluating whether Gilliland was disabled, the ALJ undertook
the five-step sequential evaluation for determining
disability. At step one, the ALJ determined that
Gilliland had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged onset date. (Tr. 18.) At step two, the ALJ
determined that Gilliland suffered from severe impairments of
fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraine headaches, asthma, major
depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and
mood disorder. (Id.) 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. 19-20.)
then made the following determination of Gilliland's
residual functional capacity
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with the
following additional limitations: she can frequently climb
ramps/stairs; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl;
frequently do reaching, handling, and fingering activities;
must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperature, loud
noises, vibrating environments, pulmonary irritants and
hazards; and is limited to occasional interaction with
coworkers and supervisors.
(Tr. 20.) The ALJ therefore found that Gilliland retained the
RFC to perform her past relevant work as a medical biller.
(Tr. 30.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Gilliland was not
disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 31.)
April 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the
decision. (Tr. 1.) Gilliland filed the complaint underlying
this action on June 20, 2016, seeking this Court's review
of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.)
Standard of Review
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). 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).
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 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) (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.'”
Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th
Cir. 2007) (quoting 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).
contends that the ALJ (a) erred when he rejected the opinion
of treating physician Dr. Mona Amin; (b) failed to include
fully the limitations imposed by consultative examiner Dr.
Kenneth Littlefield; (c) erred in denying Gilliland's
request to subpoena certain physicians; (d) erred in
rejecting the opinion of Counselor Nicole Balles; and (e)
improperly discredited Gilliland's symptom testimony.
(Doc. 16 at 16-25.)
Dr. Mona Amin
Amin filled out a fibromyalgia questionnaire regarding
Gilliland's impairments. (Tr. 959-62.) In it, Dr. Amin
noted that she had treated Gilliland for over two years,
seeing her every one to three months in that period. (Tr.
959.) She noted that Gilliland had 14 out of 18 trigger
points, muscle spasms, fatigue, and chronic pain, along with
several other “fibromyalgia associated symptoms.”
(Tr. 959-60.) Dr. Amin opined that in an 8 hour workday,
Gilliland could sit for 2-3 hours, stand for 2-3 hours, lift
and carry less than 10 pounds, would often need to alternate
between sitting, standing and walking, and would suffer from
certain limitations in use of her limbs and flexibility. (Tr.
960-61.) Dr. Amin further noted that Gilliland suffered from
moderately severe medication side effects, including
lethargy, dizziness and sedation, and would miss at least six
days of work per month because of her condition. (Tr.
gave Dr. Amin's opinion “little weight”
because the doctor did not document significant medical
abnormalities that support her assessment of the
claimant's functional limitations. Aside from the
presence of positive trigger points, the other findings do
not justify the highly restrictive limitations the doctor
assessed. Dr. Amin's opinion is brief, conclusory, and
not supported by her own diagnostic and clinical findings. It
is not supported by the claimant's routine and
conservative course of treatment for fibromyalgia nor by the
claimant's activities of daily living, as indicated
throughout the record. Dr. Amin listed the claimant's
diagnosis and subjective complaints, but did not offer an
explanation of the evidence she relied on in forming her
opinion. She apparently relied quite heavily on the
subjective report of symptoms and limitations provided by the
claimant, and seemed to uncritically accept as true most, if
not all, of what the claimant reported.
opinion of a treating physician is given more weight than
those of non-treating and non-examining physicians.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007); Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). If a treating
physician's opinion is uncontradicted, an ALJ must
provide “clear and convincing” reasons, supported
by substantial evidence, to reject it. Ghanim v.
Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1160-61 (9th Cir. 2014). If a
treating physician's opinion is contradicted, an ALJ must
provide “specific and legitimate” reasons,
supported by substantial evidence, to reject it. Id.
Amin's opinion as to Gilliland's functional
limitations was contradicted by the state agency physicians,
who opined initially that Gilliland could occasionally lift
50 pounds, frequently lift 25 pounds, and stand, walk and sit
for six hours in an eight hour work day, and that she had no
manipulative limitations, (Tr. 94), and opined to the same
limitations on reconsideration with the exception for
Gilliland's occasional lifting capability (20 pounds) and
her frequent lifting capability (10 pounds). (Tr. 111-12.)
Accordingly, the ALJ needed to provide specific and
legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence, to
reject Dr. Amin's opinion.
did so. Lack of support from the medical records is a
legitimate reason to reject the opinion of a treating
physician. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957
(9th Cir. 2002) (“The ALJ need not accept the opinion
of any physician, including a treating physician, if that
opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by
clinical findings.”). And here, there is substantial
evidence in the record by which the ALJ could conclude that
Dr. Amin's treating records did not support the
restrictions to which she opined. In November of 2013, Dr.
Amin noted that Gilliland suffered from fatigue and
generalized pain, and that her symptoms had been worsening,
but that she had no difficulties moving her hands, wrists,
elbows, shoulders, although she showed “abnormal”
knee motion. (Tr. 838-42.) Gilliland received “some
relief” from her symptoms through Flexeril and trigger
point injections. (Tr. 841.) The records of visits from
December of 2013 and January and February of 2014 show
essentially identical levels of symptoms as the November 2013
visit. (Tr. 820-37.) There are no suggestions of any specific
functional limitations. The records of Dr. Kalya, a colleague
of Dr. Amin's reflect much the same impressions from