United States District Court, D. Arizona
John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.)
The ALJ's Decision Not to List Degenerative Disc Disease
as a Severe Impairment Was Supported by the Record
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
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.
The ALJ Properly Weighed the Assessments of Plaintiff's
Treating and Examining Physicians and ...