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Vargas v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 9, 2018

Vincente Jose Vargas, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Vincente Jose Vargas's Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 19, “Pl's Br.”), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 21, “Def's Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 22, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 14, R.) and affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 11-21) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-4).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Applications on December 13, 2012, for a period of disability beginning August 1, 2009. (R. at 11.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on April 9, 2013, and on reconsideration on November 7, 2013. (R. at 11.) Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 12, 2014. (R. at 26-58.) On May 8, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 11-21.) On August 23, 2016, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-4.)

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease; cervical and lumbar listhesis; multilevel cervical disc protrusions; right-sided L4 pars interarticularis defect; and depressive disorder. (R. at 13.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work, but, relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary, unskilled work, including work as a document preparer, escort vehicle driver, and call out operator. (R. at 20-21.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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 omitted).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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 the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 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 in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to support her decision with substantial evidence because she misstated two pieces of evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of Plaintiff's examining physicians, Drs. Behinfar and Geary; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to order a physical evaluation of Plaintiff. (Pl's Br. at 9-11.)

         A. The ALJ's Determination is Supported By Substantial Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues that, because the ALJ misstated two pieces of evidence in the record, substantial evidence cannot support her decision to discount Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms. (Pl's Br. at 9.)

         “Where, as here, an ALJ concludes that a claimant is not malingering, and that she has provided objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which might reasonably produce the pain or other symptoms alleged, the ALJ may reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492-93 (9th Cir. 2015) (citing Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007)) (internal quotation marks omitted). An ALJ's finding that a claimant is not credible, “must be sufficiently specific to allow a reviewing court to conclude the adjudicator rejected the claimant's testimony on permissible grounds and did not arbitrarily discredit a claimant's testimony regarding pain.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 493 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Where an ALJ's error is “harmless and does not negate the validity of the [] ultimate conclusion, ” the Court shall uphold the ALJ's determination. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1197 (9th Cir. 2004).

         Plaintiff points to two alleged misstatements by the ALJ in support of his argument. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erroneously stated that a nurse practitioner, rather than a physician, performed Plaintiff's pain management examinations and treatment at Desert Pain and Rehabilitation Specialists. (R. at 9.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in interpreting Plaintiff's records from the Laser Spine Institute by concluding that no surgical procedure had ...


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