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Rosado v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 13, 2018

Lisa Marie Rosado, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Lisa Marie Rosado'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 SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 16, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 19, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 9, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 20-37) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an Application for Disability Insurance Benefits on September 10, 2014, for a period of disability beginning November 26, 2012. (R. at 20, 225-27.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on March 30, 2015 (R. at 132-35), and on reconsideration on July 20, 2015 (R. at 140-42). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 25, 2016. (R. at 44-82.) On July 28, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 20-37.) On November 22, 2016, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-3.) The present appeal followed.

         The 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, degenerative disc disease (“DDD”) of lumbar and cervical spine, mild tendinopathy of the left shoulder status post-surgical intervention, history of Madelung's deformity of the right wrist status post-surgical intervention, pseudo-tumor cerebri, headaches, and obesity. (R. at 22-23.) The ALJ concluded that, although Plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work, she has the RFC to perform work in the national economy, such that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. (R. at 35-37.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In 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 it 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 omitted).

         To 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. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred in weighing Plaintiff's 100% disability rating by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”); (2) the ALJ erred in weighing the assessments of non-treating physicians; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's testimony less than fully credible. (Pl.'s Br. at 13-25.)

         Plaintiff served in the U.S. Air Force security forces and was deployed to Iraq in 2008, where she was exposed to rocket and mortar attacks. (R. at 1098.) Around November 26, 2012, Plaintiff received in-patient medical treatment for depression with suicidal and homicidal ideations. (R. at 51-52.) The VA conducted physical examinations of Plaintiff in October 2012 and January 2013, placing limitations on Plaintiff's physical capabilities that included no lifting objects more than five pounds and no walking more than a quarter mile. (R. at 2588-89.) Then, in a certified evaluation dated April 26, 2013, the VA found that Plaintiff had a 50% disability rating due to combat-related PTSD with major depressive disorder, and a 20% disability rating due to chronic low back pain with sciatica, DDD at levels L4-5 and L5-S1, spinal stenosis, left shoulder pain, and right forearm pain, for a total of a 70% disability rating. (R. at 1097.) Over the course of the next two years, the VA regularly re-evaluated Plaintiff's condition and increased her disability rating to 90% and then 100%, with increases in the rating for PTSD and major depressive disorder as well as Plaintiff's spinal impairments. (R. at 1099-1129, 2512-15, 2534, 2559-2572.) In January 2015, the VA found that Plaintiff had a 70% disability rating for the PTSD with major depressive disorder components of her conditions, finding that Plaintiff has

difficulty in adapting to work; near-continuous panic affecting the ability to function independently, appropriately and effectively; difficulty in adapting to stressful circumstances; suicidal ideation; difficulty in adapting to worklike setting; disturbances of motivation and mood; panic attacks more than once a week; occupational and social impairment with reduced reliability and productivity, mild memory loss, depressed mood, chronic sleep impairment, anxiety, [and] suspiciousness.

(R. at 2514.) The VA's evaluation included a review of Plaintiff's treatment records-the same records that the ALJ had before her.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the VA's extensive evaluations and disability findings because they were “not supported by the record.” (R. at 33-34.) She stated that Plaintiff's mental condition stabilized with treatment, Plaintiff's testimony revealed symptom improvement, and Plaintiff had “mild-to-moderate GAF scores.” (R. at 33-34.) Elsewhere in her decision, the ALJ opined that the medical record shows that Plaintiff's mental condition stabilized after her five-week hospitalization in 2012, that her ...


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