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Sanchez-Gonzalez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 31, 2019

Ana Sanchez-Gonzalez, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HON. JOHN J. TUCHI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE .

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Anna Sanchez-Gonzalez's[1] Applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and 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. 14, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 15, “Reply”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 18, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 13, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 18-41) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 3-17).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits on January 25, 2013 for a period of disability beginning May 17, 2011. (R. at 24.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 7, 2013 (R. at 55-76), and on reconsideration on February 4, 2014 (R. at 116-18.) Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 29, 2015. (R. at 42-54.) On October 21, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 18-41.) On December 22, 2016, the Appeals Council granted a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 179-83.) The Appeals Council issued its decision (R. at 3-17) on February 7, 2017 and found that because Plaintiff turned 55 just six weeks after the ALJ's decision, thereby becoming a member of the category for those approaching advanced age, the Plaintiff “became disabled on October 21, 2015, the date of the [ALJ's] decision, but not before that date.” (R. at 13.) Plaintiff now appeals the finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from her alleged disability onset date of May 17, 2011 until October 20, 2015. (Pl.'s Br. at 3.)

         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: status-post left shoulder surgery, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. (R. at 26.) The ALJ concluded that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms . . . [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” (R. at 30.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled and that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper, but has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for light unskilled work in the national economy. (R. at 35-36.)

         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 treating physician; and (2) the ALJ erred by discrediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 1-2.)

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err by Giving Little Weight to the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physician Because She Provided Specific and Legitimate Reasons, Supported by Substantial Evidence, for Her Decision

         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 have 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). “As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who did not treat the claimant.” Id.

         Given this hierarchy, if the treating physician's evidence is controverted by a nontreating or nonexamining physician, the ALJ may disregard it only after “setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983). “The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The contradictory opinion of an examining physician constitutes substantial evidence when the “examining physician provides ‘independent clinical findings that differ from the findings of the treating physician.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 849 (9th Cir. 1985)). “Independent clinical findings can be either (1) diagnoses that differ from those offered by another physician and that are supported by substantial evidence . . ...


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