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Jones v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 26, 2018

James Kevin Jones, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of his denial of social security disability benefits. On appeal, Plaintiff raises two claims of error: 1) the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not give adequate reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony; and 2) the ALJ did not give adequate reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's six medical professionals' opinions.


         The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will be overturned “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence” means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         “The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ.” Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, the Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. “Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted); see Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he trier of fact 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); see also Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before the Court, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). On the other hand, the Court “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation and citation omitted).

         Finally, the Court is not charged with reviewing the evidence and making its own judgment as to whether Plaintiff is or is not disabled. Rather, the Court's inquiry is constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ and the evidence relied on in support of those reasons. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).



         “Unless an ALJ makes a finding of malingering based on affirmative evidence thereof, ” the ALJ may only find the claimant not credible by making specific findings supported by the record that provide clear and convincing reasons to explain her credibility evaluation. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 883 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1283-84 (9th Cir. 1996)). In this case, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ was required to give clear and convincing reasons to reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of his symptoms. (Doc. 14 at 20). Defendant does not dispute that this is the governing legal standard. (Doc. 15 at 12).

         In rendering a credibility determination, the ALJ may consider several factors, including: “(1) ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, such as the claimant's reputation for lying, prior inconsistent statements concerning the symptoms, and other testimony by the claimant that appears less than candid; (2) unexplained or inadequately explained failure to seek treatment or to follow a prescribed course of treatment; and (3) the claimant's daily activities.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284). If the ALJ relies on these factors and his reliance is supported by substantial evidence, the Court “may not engage in second-guessing.” Id. (quoting Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 958-59 (9th Cir. 2002)).

         In this case, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in 8 ways. Some of the claimed errors are errors of fact, and some are errors of law.

         1. Alleged Errors of Fact

         a. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff does not dispute that legally Plaintiff's testimony being inconsistent with the medical record would be a clear and convincing reason to not fully credit his symptom testimony. Instead, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider all of the medical evidence in this case in determining that Plaintiff's testimony was inconsistent with the medical evidence.

         The ALJ discusses and cites significant medical evidence that is inconsistent with the severity of the symptoms Plaintiff claims. (Doc. 9-3 at 30-32).[1] Plaintiff seems to complain that were this Court to review the medical record de novo, there would be some doctors' notes that are more favorable to Plaintiff than the ALJ's three, single-spaced page opinion on Plaintiff's symptoms recounts. Further, Plaintiff does not dispute that any of the ALJ's citations are correct; instead Plaintiff argues that there would be another way to view the evidence as a whole. However, this Court's function is not to re-weigh the evidence, and this Court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453; Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. Accordingly, the Court will not reverse the ALJ's consideration of the evidence on this point.

         b. Daily Activities

         Plaintiff does not dispute that the ALJ correctly recounted his daily activities. Further, Plaintiff does not dispute that complex and robust daily activities can be a clear and convincing reason to believe that Plaintiff is exaggerating his limitations as they relate to working. Instead, Plaintiff argues that in recounting Plaintiff's daily activities, the ALJ failed to note that he performs some of them either inconsistently or with rest periods. However, Defendant notes that “Even where those activities suggest some difficulty in functioning, they may be grounds for discrediting the claimant's testimony to the extent that they contradict claims of a totally debilitating impairment.” (Doc. 15 at 16 quoting Molina, 674 F.3d at 1113).

         Here, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff dresses independently, fosters 25 animals in his home, goes to the pet facility 1 to 2 times per week, and cooks easy meals. (Doc. 9-3 at 32). Plaintiff does not dispute these things but claims Plaintiff sometimes take breaks, or sometimes needs assistance putting on his shoes. While these additional limitations may be true, they do not change the ALJ's analysis that the number of activities Plaintiff told his physician in 2014 he was capable of performing regularly was inconsistent with the severity of the symptoms Plaintiff claims to have. Thus, the ALJ properly considered these facts.

         Further, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had acted as executor of his friend's estate in Pennsylvania, which required a long flight, with long periods of sitting, which was inconsistent with Plaintiff's claim that he must lay down for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. (Doc. 9-3 at 32). All of these activities, taken together, provide a clear and convincing reason to discount Plaintiff's symptom testimony.

         c. Following Treatment Recommendations

         Another reason listed by the ALJ for not crediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony is that Plaintiff failed to follow his doctors' treatment recommendation. Plaintiff does not dispute that failing to follow treatment recommendations is a clear and convincing reason to not fully credit his testimony. However, Plaintiff argues that, with respect to the recommendation that he have physical therapy, he did have timely physical therapy and the ALJ erred in factually concluding otherwise. (Doc. 14 at 25, n. 15).

         The ALJ found that, “It also appears that [Plaintiff] was referred for physical therapy in April and July 2014, but the record shows no compliance with this recommendation.” (Doc. 9-3 at 30-31). Citing nothing, Plaintiff argues that any delay or failure to obtain treatment was due to a lack of insurance coverage. (Doc. 17 at 25, n. 15). However, nothing in this record, or the record before the ALJ, factually supports this argument. Thus, the Court finds this bare assertion at the appellate level does not disprove the ALJ's finding at the agency level. Thus, this Court finds no factual error by the ALJ with respect to this finding.

         2. Alleged Errors of Law

         a. Specificity of the Opinion

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's claimed symptoms were inconsistent with the medical record. (Doc. 9-3 at 30-32). Plaintiff does not dispute that Plaintiff's claimed symptoms being inconsistent with the medical record is a clear and convincing reason for the ALJ to not credit Plaintiff's symptom testimony. However, Plaintiff argues that as a matter of law, if the ALJ's analysis in this regard is not specific enough, then this reason is not clear and convincing.

         After recounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony (Doc. 9-3 at 29-30), the ALJ spends 3 single spaced pages, citing over 50 exhibits, explaining how the medical record was inconsistent with Plaintiff's symptom testimony. The Court will not reproduce that portion of the ALJ's opinion in its entirety in this Order. However, by way of example, the ALJ found:

At the current hearing, the claimant testified that his biggest impediment to working full ...

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