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De Nunez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 8, 2018

Margarita Leon De Nunez, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David K. Duncan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Margarita Leon De Nunez appeals from the denial of her application for benefits. (Doc. 1) This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, with the parties' consent to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 14) As detailed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision contains harmful errors and the Court will remand for further proceedings.

         Standard of Review

         This court must affirm the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible error. Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9thCir. 1990). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1988). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).

         Thus, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision where the evidence considered in its entirety substantially supports it and the decision is free from reversible error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). The Court must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision. Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 645 (9th Cir. 1988). However, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750.

         Background

         Leon[1] was 40 years old on her alleged disability onset date. She has an 11th grade education and past relevant work as a packager and machine operator. (Tr. 32)

         After a hearing where Leon and a vocational expert testified, the ALJ issued an opinion that followed the requisite five step process. The ALJ found that her severe impairment was degenerative disc disease, status post spinal fusion but that its severity did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (Tr. 25-27) The ALJ further found that Leon had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work subject to some additional functional limitations. (Tr. 27-32) Based on Leon's past work, RFC, and testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Leon could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and, thus, was not disabled. (Tr. 33-34)

         Analysis

         Background.

         Leon's primary care provider, Jason Cheng, M.D., completed a check-box form and the ALJ discounted the form's conclusions because there was “little to no explanation for such limitations.” (Tr. 30) Specifically, the ALJ noted that Dr. Cheng described Leon with bilateral limitations even though she had “only alleged limitations in the use of the left arm and hand.” (Id.) The ALJ also noted that, on the one hand, Dr. Cheng had limited Leon to sitting 10-15 minutes at a time and would need a 15 minute break every 15 minutes but, on the other hand, Leon's medical records had noted “no acute distress” and that she had been able to travel 53 minutes to the hearing and participate in the 45 minute hearing. (Id.) The ALJ did not provide any additional details before concluding that, because Dr. Cheng's opinion was “unsupported by the medical record and [Leon's] demonstrated abilities, ” his assessments were entitled to only “little weight.” (Tr. 30)

         Standard of Review.

         As the Ninth Circuit recently articulated,

The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given “controlling weight” so long as it “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When a treating physician's opinion is not controlling, it is weighted according to factors such as the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the ...

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