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Gilliland v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 4, 2017

Heather L. Gilliland, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pending 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.


         On 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.)

         In evaluating whether Gilliland was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] 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.)

         The ALJ then made the following determination of Gilliland's residual functional capacity (“RFC”):[2]

[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.)

         On 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.)


         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). 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 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).

         II. Analysis

         Gilliland 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.)

         A. Dr. Mona Amin

         Dr. 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. 961-62.)

         The ALJ 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.

(Tr. 27.)

         The 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.

         Dr. 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.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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