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Brady v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 26, 2018

Savannah Brady, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Michelle H. Bums United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Savannah Brady's appeal from the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After reviewing the administrative record and the arguments of the parties, the Court now issues the following ruling.


         On March 31, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. On April 20, 2012, she also filed an application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. In both applications, she alleged disability beginning April 21, 2009. These claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing, and on December 13, 2012, she appeared and testified before an ALJ. On January 18, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         On September 8, 2014, the Appeals Council reviewed the case and remanded the matter directing the ALJ to further evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique; give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity; and expand the record obtaining supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's ability to perform the demands of her past relevant work, and, as necessary, the occupational base for other work. (Tr. at 192-93.)

         The ALJ held a second hearing pursuant to the Appeals Council's remand order on April 1, 2015, and issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled on May 13, 2015. (Tr. at 48-85, 21-47.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's second request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Thereafter, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. See id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, a court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).

         Harmless error principles apply in this context. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate nondisability determination. See id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. See id. at 1111.

         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). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing ... inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9thCir. 1989).


         In order to be eligible for disability or social security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An ALJ determines a claimant's eligibility for benefits by following a five-step sequential evaluation:

(1) determine whether the applicant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”;
(2) determine whether the applicant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments;
(3) determine whether the applicant's impairment equals one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges as so severe as to preclude the applicant from engaging in substantial gainful activity;
(4) if the applicant's impairment does not equal one of the listed impairments, determine whether the applicant is capable of performing his or her past relevant work;
(5) if the applicant is not capable of performing his or her past relevant work, determine whether the applicant is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience.

See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). At the fifth stage, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 21, 2009 - the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 26.) At step two, he found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: status post motor vehicle accident resulting in traumatic brain injury, mood disorder, bipolar disorder, and unspecified personality disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (Tr. at 26.) At step three, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Commissioner's regulations. (Tr. at 27-28.) After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions and repetitive tasks, with mild difficulty interacting with the public and coworkers, and moderate difficulty interacting with supervisors, and with the ability to tolerate no more than moderate changes in a routine work setting. Moderate is more severe than mild, which is non-severe but is defined as affects ability to perform but can still perform satisfactorily.”[1] (Tr. at 28-36.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work that does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. (Tr. at 36-37.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability from April 21, 2009, through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 37.)


         In her brief, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly weigh medical source opinion evidence; and (2) failing to properly consider her subjective complaints. Plaintiff requests that the Court remand for determination of benefits.[2]

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by improperly weighing medical opinion evidence. Plaintiff specifically states that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of psychologists Donald Nockleby, Ph.D. and Jennifer Wethe, Ph.D.; treating sources Madison Rhodes, MA, LPC; Danica Oparnica, CANP, PMHNP; Mariane Ludwig, D.C.; Ravi BajPai, D.O.; and third parties Peg Forest (University Dean) and Tammie Brady (Mother).

         The Commissioner is responsible for determining whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of disability, and need not credit a physician's conclusion that the claimant is “disabled” or “unable to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). But, the Commissioner generally must defer to a physician's medical opinion, such as statements concerning the nature or severity of the claimant's impairments, what the claimant can do, and the claimant's physical or mental restrictions. § 404.1527(a)(2), (c).

         In determining how much deference to give a physician's medical opinion, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give the greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than a non-examining physician. See Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6) (listing factors to be considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length of examining or treating relationship, frequency of examination, consistency with the record, and support from objective evidence).

         If a treating or examining physician's medical opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, the opinion can be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citation omitted). Under this standard, the ALJ may reject a treating or examining physician's opinion if it is “conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole[] or by objective medical findings, ” Batson v. Commissioner, 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004), or if there are significant discrepancies between the physician's opinion and her clinical records, see Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005).

         When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, it can be rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citation omitted). To satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must set out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986). Under either standard, “[t]he ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must set ...

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