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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 12, 2018

Gwendolyn Smith, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Claimant Gwendolyn Smith's appeal of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 16). For the following reasons, the Court vacates the ALJ's decision and remands for consideration in accordance with this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         Gwendolyn Smith filed for disability benefits on July 11, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 12, 2013. Ms. Smith's application for SSA disability benefits asserted a neck and back injury. (Tr. 167). Her claim was denied on November 4, 2013; reconsideration was denied on February 6, 2014. (Tr. 83, 91). Ms. Smith requested a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ), which was held on July 22, 2015. The ALJ determined that Ms. Smith had the severe impairment of fibromyalgia. (Tr. 19). The ALJ found that Ms. Smith had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but that she should only occasionally climb ladders. (Tr. 21). Because the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith could perform her past work or other work that exists in the national economy, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 25-26). The Appeals Council denied the request to review, making the Commissioner's decision final. (Tr. 1-4). Ms. 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 opinion, and (2) improperly discounting Ms. Smith's credibility.

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         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).

         At the hearing, Dr. Eric Schmitter testified as a non-examining medical expert; he was questioned by both the ALJ and the Claimant's attorney. (Tr. 37-40). He reviewed the record and agreed with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. He noted that there was very modest orthopedic evidence. He opined that the Claimant's pain might be a somatic manifestation of depression, and as such, she would need to increase rather than decrease her activity. He did not believe that the Claimant would have any limitations on lifting, standing, walking, sitting, climbing, kneeling, or reaching. The ALJ assigned Dr. Schmitter's opinion great weight “because he has reviewed the entire medical evidence of record, made conclusions consistent with the record, answered the [ALJ's] questions, and offered an explanation.” (Tr. 23).

         Dr. Michael Steingart, a treating physician, completed a form that opined on Claimant's physical limitations. (Tr. 519-20). He stated that the Claimant could sit for four hours and stand or walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday. He believed Claimant would need to alternate positions every 21 to 45 minutes, and would need to rest for five to nine minutes after changing positions. He noted that Claimant could lift ten pounds and could frequently bend and use her hands or feet. He also believed that Claimant would need to have two to three absences from work per month. Dr. Steingart did note that he believed the Claimant could work; however, the vocational expert (VE) testified that there would be no work in the national economy for an individual with the limitations described by Dr. Steingart. (Tr. 52-53). The ALJ assigned Dr. Steingart's opinion little weight. (Tr. 24). The ALJ stated that Dr. Steingart's opinion was inconsistent with the opinion of the medical examiner. Dr. Steingart's opinion was delivered through a check-the-box form with no explanation for the limitations. The ALJ stated that the ...


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