United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell United States District Judge.
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
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.
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.
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).
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, 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).
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.
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.
Treating Physician Opinion.
argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions
of treating physician Scott Smith. Doc. 12 at 12-14.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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 ...