United States District Court, D. Arizona
Honorable John Z. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge
Robin Kay Stigleman seeks review under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her
disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of
the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported
by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the
Commissioner's decision will be vacated and the matter
remanded for further administrative proceedings.
applied for disability insurance benefits on July 30, 2013,
and for supplemental security income on October 29, 2013,
alleging disability beginning December 21, 2012. On November
10, 2015, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a
hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified.
On December 9, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision
the Commissioner's final decision.
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). The 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. 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. Id. In determining whether substantial
evidence supports a decision, the 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
error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.
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.
Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing
that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.
is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony,
determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities.
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 specific
and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.”
Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir.
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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). The claimant bears the burden of
proof on the first four steps, but at step five, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180
F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
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.
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since December 21, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
“reflex sympathetic dystrophy (complex regional pain
syndrome), depression and anxiety (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and
416.920(c)).” (AR 14.) At step three, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an
impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt.
404. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except she can stand and/or walk for about six hours in an
eight-hour workday, can sit for more than six hours on a
sustained basis in an eight-hour workday and can occasionally
climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She can frequently climb
ramps and stairs, frequently balance, stoop, kneel and
crouch. The claimant can occasionally crawl. The claimant is
able to carry out simple instructions, follow simple
work-like procedures, and make simple work-related decisions.
The claimant can perform at a consistent pace and maintain a
regular 40-hour work schedule.
(AR 17.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is
capable of performing her past relevant work as a
receptionist, parcel post clerk, insurance checker, and
cashier. Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff “has
not been under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, from December 21, 2012 through the date of [the
ALJ's] decision.” (AR 24.)
argues the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons:
(1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the assessments of treating
physicians Benet R. Press, M.D., and Jeffrey T. Bucholz,
D.O., and (2) the ALJ erred by rejecting Plaintiff's
symptom testimony in the absence of specific, clear, and
convincing reasons based on substantial evidence. (Doc. 18 at
Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions
of the following medical sources: Drs. Benet R. Press and
Jeffrey T. Bucholz. The Court will address the ALJ's
treatment of each opinion below.
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 greatest
weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight
to the opinion of an examining physician than to one of a
non-examining physician. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53
F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 1995); 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 it is not contradicted by another
doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining
physician can be rejected only for “clear and
convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830
(citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir.
1988)). A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining
physician “can only be rejected for specific and
legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence
in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31
(citing Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1043).
can meet the “specific and legitimate reasons”
standard “by setting 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). But “[t]he ALJ must do more than
offer [her] conclusions. [She] must set forth [her] own
interpretations and explain why they, rather than the
doctors', are correct.” Embrey, 849 F.2d
at 421-22. The Commissioner is responsible for determining
whether a claimant meets the statutory definition of
disability and does not give significance to a statement by a
medical source that the claimant is “disabled” or
“unable to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d).