United States District Court, D. Arizona
HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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).
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.)
The ALJ Properly Weighed Dr. Xu's Assessment
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.
“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
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 ...