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Guina v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 28, 2018

Arlene Chute Guina, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is claimant Arlene Chute Guina's appeal of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 15). For the following reasons, the Court vacates the decision and remands for additional proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Ms. Guina filed a claim for disability benefits on June 19, 2013. (Tr. 19). She alleged that she suffered from various impairments and has been disabled since September 1, 2008. (Tr. 19, 21). The claim was denied, and Ms. Guina then appeared before Administrative Law Judge Kelly Walls on September 15, 2014. (Tr. 19). In evaluating whether Ms. Guina was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 23-24).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Guina had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 1, 2008. (Tr. 21). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Guina suffered from the following severe impairments: hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, moderate obstructive sleep apnea, mononucleosis, and cervical spine degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 21). Also at step two, the ALJ determined that the medical record did not support Ms. Guina's claim that she suffered from fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (“CFS”). (Tr. 21-23). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, significantly limited her ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutive months, and Ms. Guina did not qualify for disability benefits. (Tr. 24-28). Ms. Guina filed a complaint in Federal Court on June 19, 2017 to appeal the denial of benefits. (Doc. 1).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will only address 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 only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). 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 the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we 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). A reviewing court may draw specific and legitimate inferences from an ALJ's decision, but it cannot speculate on the ALJ's reasoning or make “post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 1219, 1225 (9th Cir. 2009).

         II. Analysis

         A. Dr. Scott Rigden

         Ms. Guina argued that the ALJ failed to properly consider treating physician Scott Rigden's opinion that Ms. Guina suffers from CFS. (Doc. 15). The Government agreed that the ALJ erred in reviewing Dr. Rigden's opinion and in concluding that CFS was not a medically determinable impairment. (Doc. 16 at 4).

         In short, the ALJ determined that Ms. Guina did not suffer from CFS because the “objective medical signs and findings, as well as the diagnoses, of chronic fatigue syndrome . . . were not made by an acceptable medical source” but were made by naturopathic medical doctors. (Tr. 22). The ALJ noted that Dr. Scott Rigden, an acceptable medical source, cosigned the diagnosis with the naturopathic doctors, but the ALJ assigned no weight to Dr. Rigden's opinion. (Tr. 22). She based this decision on the fact that “there is no indication in the record that Dr. Rigden ever treated the claimant for chronic fatigue.” (Tr. 22). The ALJ noted that “[o]n this record, it appears that Dr. Rigden only participated in the claimant's treatment for sleep apnea.” (Tr. 22). However, as the government concedes, the ALJ erred in this conclusion. Dr. Rigden treated Ms. Guina as early as June 2009 for various conditions, including fatigue. (Tr. 418-20). In March 2010, he noted that Ms. Guina was lethargic and had limited energy. (Tr. 636). In February 2011, he had a follow up visit for CFS. (Tr. 843). In October 2011, he had a follow up visit for CFS. (Tr. 843). In January 2013, he had a follow up visit for CFS and again noted CFS in his diagnosis. (Tr. 840). In August 2013, he noted that Ms. Guina was “extreme[ly] lethargic” and was “in bed most of the time.” (Tr. 629). In October 2014, he had a follow up visit for fatigue. (Tr. 836).

         The ALJ erred in its review of Dr. Rigden's opinion.

         B. ...


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