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Yeager v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 22, 2018

Michael J Yeager, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income in April 2012, alleging disability beginning April 12, 2013. (A.R. 13.) The claim was denied initially on August 27, 2013, and upon reconsideration on November 14, 2013. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On March 24, 2015, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 35-75.) The ALJ issued a written decision on August 5, 2015, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 13-28.) This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 1-4.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 12), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 15, 16, 19). For reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         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

         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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. 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. Id. 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. Id. 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. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he 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. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 12, 2013. (A.R. 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: affective disorder with generalized history of depression and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with complaints of chronic pain. (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 16.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except [he] has the mental capacity to perform work where interpersonal contact is only incidental to the work performed, i.e., that interpersonal contact may be routine but [he] is not frequently required to consult with or involve co-workers and public contact is limited to that which is merely incidental to the job and generally brief, infrequent, and superficial; [his] performed tasks can involve several variables and judgment within limits; supervision required [of him] is little for routine tasks but more detailed for non-routine to semi-skilled tasks; changes in [his] adaptive functioning may be occasionally disrupted by significant changes in the work setting; and [he] needs to change position between sitting and standing frequently.

(Id. at 19.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a cook and, therefore, concluded that he is not disabled. (Id. at 26, 28.)

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's RFC determination, arguing that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of the agency's consultative examiner and erred in rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. Having reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err in discrediting Plaintiff's testimony or discounting the medical opinion of the consultative examiner.

         I. The ALJ Properly Weighed the Consultative Examiner's Opinion

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assignment of only “partial weight” to the assessment of the agency's consultative examiner, Dr. Steven Hirdes. (Doc. 15 at 16-21.) 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). Generally, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinions of non-treating physicians. Id. 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). “To reject [the] uncontradicted opinion of . . . an examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are ...


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