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Freeman v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 10, 2017

Naomi Freeman, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Naomi Irene Freeman's appeal of 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 decision.


         On December 16, 2013, Ms. Freeman filed an application for disability benefits as well as an application for supplemental security income. (Tr. 19). Both applications alleged a disability onset date of June 25, 2013. Id. Both claims were initially denied on March 6, 2014, and they were denied again upon reconsideration on July 9, 2014. Id. Ms. Freeman then filed a written request for a hearing, and she testified before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Thomas Cheffins through a video hearing on August 12, 2014. Id. On July 14, 2015 the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Ms. Freeman was not disabled. (Tr. 30).

         In evaluating whether Ms. Freeman was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 20-21). At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Freeman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 25, 2013, the alleged onset date.[2] (Tr. 21-22). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Freeman suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with back pain, mild bilateral hip chondrosis, and obesity. (Tr. 22). 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. Id.

         At that point, the ALJ reached step four and made a determination of Ms. Freeman's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [3] concluding that Ms. Freeman could “perform light work” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the exception that “she can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl.” (Tr. 23). He also found that Ms. Freeman's RFC did not prohibit her from performing her past relevant work as a medical assistant, bank teller, and Certified Nursing Assistant so long as she was limited to light work as a CNA. (Tr. 29). In making these findings, the ALJ discounted the opinion of Ms. Freeman's treating physician, Dr. Bagley, and relied heavily upon the opinion of an examining physician, Dr. Maric. (Tr. 26, 27). The ALJ also declined to accept the totality of Ms. Freeman's subjective symptom testimony. (Tr. 24).

         The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (Tr. 1-4). Ms. Freeman filed the complaint underlying this action on October 31, 2016, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1).


          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

         Freeman argues the ALJ (a) erroneously rejected Dr. Bagley's medical opinion, (b) wrongfully assigned significant weight to Dr. Maric's opinion, and (c) did not discredit Ms. Freeman's testimony with clear and convincing evidence. (Doc. 12).

         A. The ALJ Justifiably Rejected Dr. Bagley's Opinion

         “A treating physician's medical opinion as to the nature and severity of an individual's impairment must be given controlling weight if that opinion is well-supported and not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2001), as amended on reh'g (Aug. 9, 2001); see Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended (Apr. 9, 1996) (“As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who do not treat the claimant.”). However, an “ALJ need not accept a treating physician's opinion which is ‘brief and conclusionary in form with little in the way of clinical findings to support [its] conclusion.'” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting Young v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 963, 968 (9th Cir.1986)).

         If the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the ALJ still cannot reject the treating physician's opinion unless she provides “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 831 (internal quotations omitted). “Sheer disbelief is no substitute for substantial evidence, ” and thus the ALJ must specify what evidence she is relying on to reject the treating physician's opinion. Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 594 (9th Cir. 2004). “The opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining physician or a treating physician.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. Also, the ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion if it is primarily based on a claimant's properly discounted self-reports. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). The ALJ may cite to diagnostic test results, contrary reports from examining physicians, and “testimony from the claimant that conflicted with her treating physician's opinion” to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion of a treating physician. Benecke, 379 F.3d at 594.

         The ALJ rejected the medical opinion of Dr. Bagley, Ms. Freeman's treating physician, because it was conclusory, internally inconsistent, inconsistent with the objective medical evidence of the record at large, and contradicted by both an examining physician and the reviewing physician for the state agency. (Tr. 27). The ALJ also asserted that Dr. Bagley's ...

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