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Rowe v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 26, 2018

Deborah Jean Rowe, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Petitioner Deborah Jean Rowe's appeal of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. (Doc. 16). For the following reasons, the decision of the Social Security Administration is affirmed.


         Appellant Deborah Jean Rowe filed for benefits on March 1, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2010. The Social Security Administration denied her claim on August 1, 2013 and then again upon rehearing on January 6, 2014. She submitted a written request for a hearing, and an administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on October 15, 2015. The ALJ determined that Rowe has two severe impairments-bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. (Tr. 31). The ALJ also found that Rowe has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform “work at all exertional levels” but with limitations, including being limited to “simple, routine, and repetitive work tasks involving simple work related decisions and simple instructions, ” needing a work “environment with few changes in the work setting, ” and needing to avoid public contact and more than occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors. (Tr. 34).

         With these restrictions, the ALJ determined that Rowe would be unable to perform her past relevant work, but that she would be able to work as an assembler, a packager, or a presser. (Tr. 41-42). The ALJ therefore concluded that Rowe was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 42). Rowe requested review by the Appeals Council, but was denied review on June 1, 2017. Rowe now appeals the ALJ's decision.


         I. Legal Standard

         When reviewing social security appeals, courts address only the issues raised by the claimant. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). If the court finds that the denial of disability is unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error, the denial will be set aside. 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 marks omitted).

         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 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). “[I]f 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).

         II. Analysis

         Rowe raises three issues on appeal. First, she alleges that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of two treatment providers, Dr. Elizabeth Brown and nurse practitioner Iris Ruddy. Second, Rowe alleges that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Rowe's credibility. Lastly, Rowe challenges the accepted hypothetical given to the vocational expert (VE) by the ALJ. The objections lack merit, and the decision of the ALJ is therefore affirmed.

         A. Evaluation of Medical Evidence

         Rowe contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence in her case. The ALJ considered medical evidence from Dr. Brown, Ms. Ruddy, and Dr. Andres Kerns, a state agency consultant. After considering the entire record, the ALJ assigned partial weight to the opinion of Dr. Brown, significant weight to the opinion of Dr. Kerns, and little weight to the opinion of Ms. Ruddy. (Tr. 39-40).

         The relevant regulations create a hierarchy for medical opinions offered by licensed physicians. The opinion of a treating physician is given more weight than non-treating and non-examining medical sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527; Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007). When the treating doctor's opinion is uncontradicted, the ALJ can reject those conclusions only for “‘clear and convincing' reasons.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Baxter v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1391, 1396 (9th Cir. 1991)). But when the opinion of a treating or examining physician is contradicted, an ALJ may reject the contradicted opinion for ‚Äúspecific and legitimate ...

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