United States District Court, D. Arizona
Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.
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
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).
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
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)
alleges that the ALJ erred by (1) improperly rejecting the
treating physician's opinion, and (2) improperly
discounting Ms. Smith's credibility.
Medical Opinion Evidence
“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).
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.”
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 ...