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Napier-Keenan v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 19, 2018

Rhonda Lee Napier-Keenan, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Rhonda Lee Napier-Keenan'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. 10, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 17, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 18, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 8, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 22-35) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application on June 14, 2013, for a period of disability beginning March 1, 2011. (R. at 179-80.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on September 27, 2013 (R. at 85), and on reconsideration on February 3, 2014 (R. at 122-24). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 22, 2015. (R. at 43-84.) On August 28, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 22-35.) On January 31, 2017, 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 finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. 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 status post right colectomy for stage 1 cecal carcinoma, status post right inguinal hernia repair, status post right shoulder subacromial decompression and manipulation under anesthesia, status post-surgical repair right arm nerves, and cervical degenerative disc disease (R. at 25), but that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform skilled sedentary work with some limitations, including her past work as a cashier and receptionist, such that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act (R. at 34-35).

         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 the determination 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 two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's headaches were not a severe impairment by ignoring the treating physician's relevant assessment; and (2) the ALJ erred by failing to give specific, clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole for discounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 10-25.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Ignoring the Treating Physician's Headache Assessment and Finding that Plaintiff's Headaches Were Not a Severe Impairment

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ committed reversible error at step two of the five-step evaluative process by finding that Plaintiff's headaches were not a severe impairment. (Pl.'s Br. at 10-19.) An ALJ may find an impairment or combination of impairments to be non-severe at step two of the inquiry “only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996)) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Step two's “de minimis” standard is intended to “dispose of groundless claims.” Id. (citing Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987)). Put another way, the question is whether “the ALJ had substantial evidence to find that the medical evidence clearly established that [Plaintiff] did not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted); see also SSR 85-28, Titles II and XVI: Medical Impairments That Are Not Severe (1985) (“Great care should be exercised in applying the not severe impairment concept. If an adjudicator is unable to determine clearly the effect of an impairment or combination of impairments on the individual's ability to do basic work activities, the sequential evaluation process should not end with the not severe evaluation step.”)

         The record reveals that the office of Plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. Barry, treated Plaintiff for severe headaches at least seven times from 2012 to 2014, prescribing medication including Celebrex, Diclofenac, Tramadol, and Vicodin. (R. at 426, 436-38, 440-42, 518-24, 527-30, 578-81, 572-74.) On October 29, 2013, Dr. Barry and Advanced Nurse Practitioner (“ANP”) Mason completed a Headache Questionnaire, reporting that Plaintiff suffered from both tension and migraine headaches at the severest level, which interfered with concentration, attention, memory, and capacity to work. (R. at 585.) They opined that Plaintiff's headaches would result in an average of six to ten absences from work a month. (R. at 585.)

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she “always [has] a headache” and that headaches interfere with her daily activities “at least twice a week, ” with some headaches lasting “more than a day.” (R. at 56-58.) The Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified that the limitations set forth by ...


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