United States District Court, D. Arizona
C. L. Curtis, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
G Campbell Senior United States District Judge
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
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions
of Dr. Garrison and the state's nonexamining physicians,
Drs. Keer and Khan.
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).
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).
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
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 ...