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Meek v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 12, 2018

Thomas Meek, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Thomas Meek's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 16, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 21, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 22, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 13, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 22-32) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Application on August 13, 2013 for a period of disability beginning March 26, 2013. (R. at 90.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on October 24, 2014 (R. at 125), and on reconsideration on July 22, 2015 (R. at 132.) Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 21, 2016. (R. at 40-87.) On July 7, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 22-32.) On October 20, 2016, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1- 3.) The present appeal followed.

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following alleged impairments: anxiety, depression, moderate back pain aggravated by lifting, fatigue caused in part by severe non-positional obstructive sleep apnea, pain in the knees, ankles, and back, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and obesity. (R. at 27.) The ALJ concluded that while “medical evidence establishes that [Plaintiff] has a history of treatment for the above-listed impairments, [] his allegations of severe symptoms are not supported by the clinical evidence.” (R. at 26.) The ALJ, based on the recommendation of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for medium unskilled occupations such as hand packager, janitor, and dishwasher. (R. at 31.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by improperly discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's examining physicians without providing substantial evidence for her decision to do so; and (2) the ALJ erred by finding Plaintiff not credible. (Pl.'s Br. at 3.) In both arguments, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in reaching only the mental residual functional capacity. (Pl.'s Br. at 1.)

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Giving Little Weight to the Opinions of Plaintiff's Examining Physicians Because Her Decision Was Supported by Contradicting Substantial Evidence

         While “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence, ” there is a hierarchy among the sources of medical opinions. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). Those who treated a claimant are treating physicians, those who examined but did not treat the claimant are examining physicians, and those who neither examined nor treated the claimant are nonexamining physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). If an examining physician's opinion is uncontradicted, the ALJ must provide “clear and convincing reasons” for rejecting it. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. If contradicted by other doctors, an examining physician's opinion “can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         Normally, “[t]he opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of . . . an examining physician.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. But in some cases, the Ninth Circuit has “upheld the Commissioner's decision to reject the opinion of a[n] . . . examining physician, based in part on the testimony of a nonexamining medical advisor.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. For example, in Magallanes v. Bowen, the Ninth Circuit upheld an ALJ's decision to reject an examining physician's opinion because “the ALJ did not rely on [the nonexamining physician's] testimony alone to reject the opinions of [Plaintiff's] treating physicians . . . there was an abundance of evidence that supported the ALJ's decision: the ALJ also relied on laboratory test results, on contrary reports from examining physicians, and on testimony from the claimant.” Id. (explaining why the Ninth Circuit affirmed the ALJ's decision in Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         Here, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of two examining physicians who provided evidence of mental impairments which would render Plaintiff largely disabled. First, the ALJ discounted the opinion of Dr. Colin Joseph, who consultatively examined Plaintiff in September 2014. (R. at 27, 28.) Dr. Joseph diagnosed Plaintiff with post- traumatic stress disorder and opined that Plaintiff would be incapable of “maintaining emotional stability and appropriate social behavior in a typical work environment, ” though he concluded that Plaintiff would “be able to recognize and respond to normative workplace hazards.” (R. at 28.) The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Joseph's opinion because “[t]his was a one-time examination, and Dr. Joseph is not [Plaintiff's] treating physician . . . [and] is less able to accurately evaluate [Plaintiff's] long-term functional ...


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