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Abril v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 21, 2018

Brandi Jo Abril, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on October 30, 2012, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2011. (A.R. 13.) The claim was denied initially on February 27, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 1, 2013. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On October 19, 2013, Plaintiff, her representative, and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 41-73.) The ALJ issued a written decision three months later, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 13-31.) This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 1-3.)

         On August 30, 2016, Plaintiff sought review by this Court. (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 16), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 19, 20, 23). For reasons stated below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2016, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2011. (A.R. 16.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: asthma, gastroesophagel reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), interstitial cystitis (IC), functional dyspepsia, vaginal spasms, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, history of celiac disease, diagnoses of cervicalgia, and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 19.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except [she] cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [She] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, . . . balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. [She] should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme hot and extreme cold temperatures, wetness and humidity, and irritants, such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gasses, uses of hazardous machinery, and exposure to unprotected heights.

(Id. at 19-20.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a cashier checker and cell phone sales representative. (Id. at 29.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Id. at 30.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's RFC determination, arguing that the ALJ improperly weighed her treating physicians' medical opinions and erred in rejecting her symptom testimony. Having reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred in discrediting Plaintiff's testimony and weighing the medical opinion of one of her treating physicians. Moreover, the ALJ's decision must be reversed because these legal errors are not harmless.

         I. Weighing Treating Physicians' Opinions

         In weighing medical source opinions, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes among three types of physicians: (1) treating physicians, who actually treat the claimant; (2) examining physicians, who examine but do not treat the claimant; and (3) non-examining physicians, who neither treat nor examine the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). More weight generally should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinions of non-treating physicians because treating physicians are “employed to cure and [have] a greater opportunity to observe and know the patient as an individual.” Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987). However, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight only if the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(c)(2). Even where a treating physician's opinion is contradicted, it may not be rejected without “specific and legitimate reasons” supported by substantial evidence in the record. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830.

         In support of her disability application, Plaintiff offered the opinions of Dr. Vu, Plaintiff's primary care physician, and Dr. Castillo, her treating pain management physician. Dr. Vu opined, among other things, that the symptoms of Plaintiff's IBS and IC cause her to be “off task greater than 21% of an 8-hour work day.” (A.R. 1432-33.) Dr. Castillo opined that, due to her conditions, Plaintiff could: (1) lift no more than between 10 and 15 pounds, (2) carry less than ten pounds, (3) stand and/or walk less than 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, and (4) sit less than 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. (Id. at 1755-56.) He also opined that it was medically necessary for Plaintiff to alternate positions; that she needed a 15 minute rest when she changed position; and that her symptoms ...


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