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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 27, 2018

Robert Kenneth Smith, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Claimant Robert Kenneth Smith's appeal of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 28). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the denial of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         Robert Smith filed for disability benefits on April 25, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of January 9, 2008. His date last insured was June 30, 2010. His claim was first denied by an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 27, 2010. After an appeal to the District Court, the Commissioner moved to have the case remanded. The remand resulted in another denial of benefits on March 22, 2013. The Appeals Council remanded the matter for a third hearing. The ALJ held a hearing on April 12, 2016. The ALJ determined that Mr. Smith had the following severe impairments: coronary artery disease with status post atherectomy, myocardial infarction, hyperlipidemia, hypertriglyceridemia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, cervical spondylosis and stenosis, status post cervical discectomy, status post right knee arthroscopy, peripheral neuropathy, and obesity. (Tr. 537). With these impairments taken into account, the ALJ found that Mr. Smith had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with certain restrictions. (Tr. 540). Because the ALJ determined that Mr. Smith could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ found that Mr. Smith was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 548). The Appeals Council denied the request to review, making the Commissioner's decision final. (Tr. 513-15). Mr. Smith now seeks judicial review of this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Legal Standard

         A reviewing federal court will address only the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n. 13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits when that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation omitted). It is “relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). When evidence is “subject to more than one rational interpretation, [courts] must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because “[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981, F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).

         II. Analysis

         Claimant alleges that the ALJ erred by (1) improperly rejecting the treating physician's opinions; (2) improperly rejecting the Claimant's credibility; and (3) failing to resolve a conflict between the Vocational Expert's (VE) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).

         A. Weight Afforded to Treating Physician's Opinions

         A “treating physician” is one who actually treats the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). When a treating doctor's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may only be rejected for clear and convincing reasons. Id. If a treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, it may only be rejected for “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record for so doing.” Id. (citations omitted). Mr. Smith's treating physician--Doctor Troy Anderson--submitted reports opining that Mr. Smith was disabled and unable to work. (Tr.). The ALJ gave his opinions minimal weight.

         Dr. Anderson submitted a letter on January 9, 2008 which details Mr. Smith's diagnoses and states: “The patient is no longer [able] to work. His prognosis is poor. I do not expect recovery.” (Tr. 391). SSA guidelines in place at the time of the ALJ's decision provide that “treating source opinions on issues that are reserved to the Commissioner are never entitled to controlling weight or special significance.” SSR 96-5p. The ALJ cannot ignore such opinions, but the ALJ also cannot give the opinion controlling weight and “abdicat[e] [ ] the Commissioner's statutory responsibility to determine whether an individual is disabled. Id. The ALJ did not ignore Dr. Anderson's letter, but the ALJ did assign it minimal weight in accordance with the regulations. Claimant further argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the other statements in Dr. Anderson's letter, recounting the Claimant's peripheral neuropathy and other illnesses. But the ALJ did discuss these diagnoses throughout the record, and in fact, the ALJ found that these were severe impairments. Finally, Claimant objects to the ALJ's statement that Dr. Anderson's observation that the Claimant has an inability to drive conflicts with the Claimant's own statements about driving at the time. The ALJ was not expressing a view that a disabled person could never drive; rather the ALJ was pointing out inconsistencies which tended to make Dr. Anderson's opinion less credible.

         On October 7, 2009, Dr. Anderson submitted an RFC assessment. The ALJ assigned minimal weight to this opinion because Dr. Anderson did not discuss any objective findings to support the RFC limitations and because Dr. Anderson's findings that Claimant's medications caused impairments were not supported by the record. ALJ's “may discredit treating physicians' opinions that are conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole, . . . or by objective medical findings.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195. Claimant disputes that the record supports the ALJ's conclusion that he tolerated his medicine well. But where the evidence is “subject to more than one rational interpretation, [courts] must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Id. at 1198. The ...


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