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Hunter v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 16, 2018

Walter Hunter, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Hon. John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Walter Hunter's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 12, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 13, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 15, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 22-32) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-4).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Application on February 21, 2013, for a period of disability beginning December 6, 2012 (R. at 133-39) through his date last insured of September 30, 2017 (R. at 22). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 7, 2013 (R. at 77-80), and on reconsideration on May 20, 2014 (R. at 82-84). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on August 4, 2015. (R. at 37-52.) On September 1, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 22-32.) On June 9, 2016, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-4.) The present appeal followed.

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety, and 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 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), status post major burn with extensive scarring, and obesity (R. at 24), but that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work within the national economy, such that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act (R. at 30-32).

         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 principal arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by not including degenerative disc disease as a severe impairment; (2) the ALJ erred in weighing the treating and examining physicians' opinions; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's testimony less than fully credible. (Pl.'s Br. at 5-11.)

         A. The ALJ's Decision Not to List Degenerative Disc Disease as a Severe Impairment Was Supported by the Record

         At step two of the disability analysis, the ALJ did not list degenerative disc disease (“DDD”) as a severe impairment, which Plaintiff alleges was materially harmful error. If there is sufficient, reliable evidence of an impairment, the ALJ may only find the impairment to be non-severe in the disability analysis if “the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996)).

         Here, the evidence of degenerative disc disease is scant, and what evidence there is lacks reliability. On July 27, 2013, Dr. Jared Fairbanks-an examining but not treating physician-conducted pulmonary function testing (“PFT”) on Plaintiff arising from his application for disability benefits. (R. at 221-224.) In the test report, Dr. Fairbanks noted “subjective complaints of pain” and “a mild decrease in the lumbar spine range of motion, ” adding that, although it was beyond the scope of his testing, “the imaging for review [ ] shows that there is a moderate to severe degeneration and stenosis regarding these.” (R. at 224.) But the medical record contains no direct support for such a diagnosis, including no notes by a treating or examining physician, test results, x-rays or MRI images. Thus, Plaintiff's contention of a DDD impairment is not supported by any reliable evidence in the record, and the ALJ did not err in declining to include DDD as a severe impairment.

         B. The ALJ Properly Weighed the Assessments of Plaintiff's Treating and Examining Physicians and ...


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