United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. CAMPBELL, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Lydia Albarran seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security,
which denied her disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under §§ 216(i) and
223(d) of the Social Security Act. The Court finds that the
administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision
is based on reversible legal error and will remand for an
award of benefits.
is a 35 year old female who previously worked as a customer
complaint clerk, a loan officer, and an electrologist. A.R.
69. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income on November 26, 2013, alleging
disability beginning on August 1, 2012. A.R. 75-76 (initial
disability onset date of September 1, 2011); A.R. 44
(amending disability onset date). On May 19, 2016, Plaintiff
and a vocational expert testified at a hearing before an ALJ.
A.R. 41. On June 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that
Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. A.R. 24-34. This became the Commissioner's
final decision when the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review on October 4, 2017. A.R.
Court reviews only those issues raised by the party
challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v.
Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court
may set aside the 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, less than a
preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.
Id. In determining 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. (citation omitted). 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.
error principles apply in the Social Security context.
Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir.
2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does
not affect the ultimate nondisability determination.
Id. “The burden is on the party claiming error
to demonstrate not only the error, but also that it affected
[her] substantial rights.” Ludwig v. Astrue,
681 F.3d 1047, 1054 (9th Cir. 2012).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the
Social Security 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, and the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180
F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the
claimant must show that (1) she is not currently working, (2)
she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or
equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any
past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through
step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the
inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she
is incapable of performing past relevant work, the
Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is
capable of other work suitable for her RFC, age, education,
and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30,
2016, and she has not engaged in substantial gainful
employment since September 1, 2011. A.R. 26. At step two, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe
impairments: dysfunction of the major joints, fibromyalgia,
and anxiety disorders. Id. At step three, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets
the severity of one of the listed impairments. A.R. 27. At
step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the RFC to perform
sedentary work with some limitations, but she could not
perform her past relevant work. A.R. 29-33. At step five, the
ALJ concluded, considering Plaintiff's age, education,
work experience, and RFC, that she was able to perform other
work that exists in significant numbers in the national
economy, such as document preparer, cashier, or call-out
operator. A.R. 34.
makes two arguments: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the
opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, and (2) the
ALJ erroneously discredited Plaintiff's symptom
testimony. Doc. 11 at 9-25.
Medical Opinion Evidence.
Commissioner is responsible for determining whether a
claimant meets the statutory definition of disability and
need not credit a physician's conclusion that the
claimant is “disabled” or “unable to
work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). But the
Commissioner generally must defer to a physician's
medical opinion, such as statements concerning the nature or
severity of the claimant's impairments, what the claimant
can do, and the claimant's physical or mental
restrictions. § 404.1527(a)(1), (c).
determining how much deference to give a physician's
medical opinion, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the
opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and
non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81
F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give
the greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and
more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than a
non-examining physician. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53
F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 1995); see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6) (listing factors to be
considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length
of examining or treating relationship, frequency of
examination, consistency with the record, and support from
must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the
uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining physician.
Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. Under this standard, the ALJ
may reject a treating or examining physician's opinion if
it is “conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record
as a whole or by objective medical findings, ”
Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d
1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted), or if there
are significant discrepancies between the physician's
opinion and her clinical records, Bayliss v.
Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005).
treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted
by another doctor, it can only be rejected for
“specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence in the record.” Lester,
81 F.3d at 830-31. To satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must
set out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts
and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation
thereof, and making findings.” Revels v.
Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (quotation
marks and citation omitted). Under either standard,
“[t]he ALJ must do more than state conclusions. He must
set forth his own ...