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Capers v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 16, 2019

Mia Capers, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Mia Capers's Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 13, Pl.'s Br.), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 15, Def.'s Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 16, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 12, R.) and affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 1068-1084) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1048-1052).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application for Disability Insurance benefits on January 6, 2015, and her Application for Supplemental Security Income on March 19, 2015, both for a period of disability beginning December 12, 2014. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on July 2, 2015, and upon reconsideration on October 9, 2015. Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 15, 2015. (R. at 54- 90.) On July 19, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 1068-84.) On September 16, 2016, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision, (R. at 1058-61); however, the Appeals Council set aside its initial decision to consider additional information, (R. at 1049-52). After additional review, the Appeals Council once more upheld the ALJ's decision on November 25, 2016. (R. at 1049-52.)

         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 found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of fibromyalgia, obesity status post gastric bypass, lumbar degenerative disc disease, status post right Achilles tendon surgery, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. at 1071.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual function capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a user support analyst and customer complaint clerk.

         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 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, 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 to determine 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 three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of treating physicians Drs. Xu and Wall; (2) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's testimony was not entirely credible; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments were non-severe. (Pl.'s Br. at 1.)

         A. The ALJ Properly Weighed Dr. Xu's Assessment

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in weighing the opinions of Dr. Xu. (Pl.'s Br. at 15-16.) Although Dr. Xu, a psychiatrist, treated Plaintiff, his course of treatment consisted of two visits over the span of a single month. After Plaintiff's second visit, on October 10, 2015, Dr. Xu submitted a check-box style statement regarding Plaintiff's purported mental health limitations. (R. at 610-11.) Dr. Xu opined that Plaintiff suffered from marked limitations in understanding instructions, remembering work-like procedures, using public transportation, and completing a normal work day. (R. at 611.) He additionally opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in interacting with supervisors and co-workers, dealing with workplace stress, and maintaining regular attendance. (R. at 611.) Dr. Xu stated that the basis for this opinion was a “mental evaluation.” (R. at 610.) However, he provided no further explanation or elaboration supporting his conclusions.

         An ALJ “may only reject a treating or examining physician's uncontradicted medical opinion based on ‘clear and convincing reasons.'” Carmickle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996)). “Where such an opinion is contradicted, however, it may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. Dr. Xu's opinion was contradicted by the opinion of Dr. Shultz, an examining physician. In contrast to Dr. Xu, Dr. Schultz concluded among other things that Plaintiff exhibited “adequate memory and concentration.” (R. at 572-74.)

         The ALJ found Dr. Xu's opinion merited little weight because he only treated Plaintiff over two visits in one month (R. at 1074), which is insufficient to establish a treating relationship. Moreover, Dr. Xu's findings were on a checklist form unsupported by further explanation or treatment notes (R. at 1074), which is a valid reason for the ALJ to discount the findings. See Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 253 (9th Cir. 1996) (“The ALJ . . . permissibly rejected [three psychological evaluations] because they were check-off reports that did not contain any explanation of ...


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