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Curtis v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 6, 2018

C. L. Curtis, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          David G Campbell Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff C.L. Curtis seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated, and the matter remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a fifty-eight-year-old female who previously worked as a server, a stocker, and a housekeeper. A.R. 54. On March 5, 2014, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, initially alleging disability beginning February 2, 2011. She later amended the onset date to January 1, 2014. A.R. 15. Plaintiff was last insured for SSDI benefits on June 30, 2015. A.R. 15. On February 13, 2017, she appeared with her attorney and testified before an ALJ. A.R. 15. A vocational expert also testified. A.R. 15. On March 27, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 15. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. A.R. 1.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The 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 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, 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. 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).

         Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act 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 claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To 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).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2014. A.R. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease with stenosis, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post right release. A.R. 17. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. pt. 404. A.R. 20. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:

[L]ight work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) except that the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently climb ramps or stairs; frequently balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; frequently handle, or feel bilaterally; and the claimant can have only occasional exposure to dangerous machinery with moving mechanical parts, as well as unprotected heights that are high or exposed..

A.R. 21. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. A.R. 28. Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found at step five that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as hostess. A.R. at 29.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly weighed Plaintiff's examining physician's medical opinions, and (2) the ALJ improperly rejected Plaintiff's symptom testimony. The Court will address each argument.

         A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions of Dr. Garrison and the state's nonexamining physicians, Drs. Keer and Khan.

         1. Legal Standard

         The 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).

         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 greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to one of 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)(2)-(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 objective evidence). If it is not contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining physician can be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988)). A contradicted opinion “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 (citing Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1043).

         An ALJ can meet the “specific and legitimate reasons” standard “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986). But “[t]he ALJ must do more than offer [her] conclusions. [She] must set forth [her] own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Embrey, 849 F.2d at 421-22.

         2. Dr. Garrison.

         Dr. Garrison provided two medical opinions. He provided the first opinion as an examining doctor, and the second after he became Plaintiff's treating physician. See A.R. 515 (examining physician, September 2, 2014), 525 (treating physician, May 13, 2016). The ALJ did not expressly find that other medical opinions in the record contradicted Dr. Garrison's, but the Court can infer from the record that Dr. Garrison's assessments differed from those of agency nonexamining physicians on Plaintiff's ability to lift or carry, stand or walk, and sit. S ...

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