Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

De La Rosa v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 9, 2018

Herlinda Maria De La Rosa, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Herlinda De La Rosa seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Because the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision is based on reversible legal error, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 51 year old female who previously worked as an accounting assistant, administrative assistant, accounts receivable clerk, and billing and collections clerk. A.R. 30-31, 42. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 20, 2014, alleging disability beginning on November 2, 2012. A.R. 21. On July 8, 2016, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On November 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 21-32. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision on April 25, 2017. A.R. 3-6.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The 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 determination only if it 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. 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. (citation omitted). 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).

         Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security 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 burden is on the party claiming error to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected [her] substantial rights.” Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ 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. 1989).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         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). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) she is not currently working, (2) she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 2012. A.R. 24. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status-post cerebral vascular accident (“CVA”), systematic lupus erythematosus (“lupus”), hypothyroidism, Sjogren's syndrome, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. A.R. 24. The ALJ acknowledged that the record contained evidence of depressive disorder, but found that this is not a severe impairment. A.R. 24-26. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. A.R. 26-27. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with some additional limitations and that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work. A.R. 27-31.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff makes three arguments: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting her treating physician's opinions, (2) the ALJ improperly discredited Plaintiff's symptom testimony, and (3) the RFC fails to reflect Plaintiff's mental and visual impairments and is not supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 12 at 10-22.

         A. Treating Physician Opinion.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions of treating physician Scott Smith. Doc. 12 at 12-14.

         1. Legal Standard.

         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)(1), (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)(1)-(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. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. 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. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted), or if there are significant discrepancies between the physician's opinion and her clinical records, 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. 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.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Under either standard, “[t]he ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         2. Dr. Smith.

         Dr. Smith is a treating physician who issued four opinions regarding Plaintiff's ability to work. A.R. 2719-26, 2739-41, 3299-3302. In May 2014, Dr. Smith opined that Plaintiff could not work due to the residual effects of a CVA, her cognitive dysfunction, and vision impairment. A.R. 2724. In September 2014, Dr. Smith opined that Plaintiff's vision impairment prevented her from working. A.R. 2739-40. In March 2016, Dr. Smith issued two opinions that Plaintiff could not work due to her vision, cognition, memory, balance, and motor-function impairments. A.R. 3299-3302. The ALJ did not recite each specific opinion, but chose instead to provide a summary:

1 Scott Smith, M.D., a treating physician, submitted opinions of the claimant's limitations. Dr. Scott reported her inability to return to her past work along with never crawling, kneeling, climbing, squatting, or reaching above shoulder level. He further opined she would ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.