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Hazelton v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 21, 2018

Mark Anthony Hazelton, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is claimant Mark Anthony Hazelton's appeal of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 10). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the denial of benefits.


         Mr. Hazelton filed a claim for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration on September 26, 2012, alleging that he suffers from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and various other medical conditions. (Tr. 30). Mr. Hazelton's claim was denied, and he eventually appeared before Administrative Law Judge Earl Cates on June 7, 2016. (Tr. 13). In evaluating whether Mr. Hazelton was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 14-16).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Hazelton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 16). At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hazelton suffers from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with low back pain. (Tr. 16-17). At step three, the ALJ decided that Mr. Hazelton's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment in the regulations. (Tr. 17). At step four, the ALJ determined Mr. Hazelton's residual functional capacity and found that he could perform medium work with various exceptions, such as being able to sit, stand, or walk for four hours at one time and up to six hours in an eight hour work day. (Tr. 17- 20). As part of this analysis, the ALJ considered the opinion testimony of treating physician Dr. Mark Whitaker, examining physician Robert Gordon, and various other consultative examining physicians and reviewing physicians. (Tr. 19-20). The ALJ then determined that Mr. Hazelton is capable of performing his past relevant work as a protective signal installer, change person for slot machines, and security consultant. (Tr. 20-21). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hazelton does not qualify for disability benefits. (Tr. 21).

         The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Mr. Hazelton's request for review. (Tr. 1-3). He filed this complaint on August 7, 2017 to challenge the denial of benefits. (Doc. 1).


         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

         Mr. Hazelton argues that the ALJ failed to support his finding of nondisability with substantial evidence; gave less-than-deserved weight to treating physician Dr. Mark Whitaker; gave more-than-deserved weight to examining physician Dr. Robert Gordon; and failed to appropriately consider Mr. Hazelton's daily activities.

         A. Whether the ALJ supported his decision with substantial evidence

         An ALJ must support a denial of disability benefits with substantial evidence. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Therefore, courts cannot affirm an ALJ's decision “simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998). Although an ALJ “need not discuss all evidence presented, ” the ALJ may not ignore substantial, contradictory evidence and must “explain why significant probative evidence has been rejected.” Carter v. Colvin, 651 Fed.Appx. 721, 723 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Vincent ex rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984)); see also Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 957 (9th Cir. 1993) (“our review of the record as a whole indicates that the ALJ ignored substantial evidence on the overall record indicating that [claimant] was disabled within the meaning of the Act”);

         For objective medical evidence, the record includes x-rays of the lumbar spine taken in December 2012 showing “marked degenerative disc disease, ” (Tr. 373), and a January 2014 MRI showing “severe disc space narrowing” and “severe left neuroforaminal stenosis.” (Tr. 398). The ALJ briefly mentioned these tests and then concluded without discussion that these two reports supported a medium exertional limitation with frequent climbing and crawling. (Tr. 18). However, neither Dr. Gordon nor Dr. Boyack had these reports when examining Mr. Hazelton, (Tr. 377, 411, 419), and the medical interpretations of those two reports are sparse. Dr. Schultz stated that the MRI showed “considerable” change at ¶ 4-S1 and L5-S1 and served as a basis for Mr. Hazelton's pain complaints. (Tr. 409). Dr. ...

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