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B. Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 4, 2019

B. Johnson, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff B. Johnson seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, 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 Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred as described below, and the error was not harmless, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated and remanded for further proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 60-year-old female who previously worked as a real estate agent, a server, and in various semiskilled to skilled jobs. Doc. 12 at 2-3; A.R. 55-56. On June 10, 2014, she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2014. A.R. 27. On October 11, 2016, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. On November 7, 2016, the ALJ held that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 27-40. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. A.R. 1-3.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The 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 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, 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). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         Harmless 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 is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To 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 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).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2018, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2014. A.R. 29. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: orthostatic tremor (intermittent) and recent diagnosis of Parkinson's syndrome. Id. at 19. 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. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant can occasionally lift ten pounds and frequently lift less than ten pounds. The claimant can stand and walk one hour each in an eight-hour day. The claimant does not have any limitations for sitting. She does not use an assistive device for ambulating. The claimant's seeing, hearing, and speaking are unlimited. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, reach, handle, finger, and feel frequently. The claimant has restrictions for working around heights and moving machinery. The claimant does not have any restrictions for working around extremes in temperature, working around or with chemicals, working around dusts, fumes, or gasses, or working around excessive noise.

Id. at 31. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 37. The ALJ then determined that, considering the Plaintiff's “age, education, work experience, and [RFC], the [Plaintiff] has acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 38.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for four reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Christopher T. Pullins; (2) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of the state's consultative examiner, Dr. Brian R. Briggs; (3) the ALJ improperly discredited Plaintiff's symptom testimony; and (4) the ALJ improperly weighed lay evidence provided by Plaintiff's husband. Doc. 12 at 1-2.

         A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.

         1. Legal Standard.

         The 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).

         The 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 the greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than a non-examining physician. See Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; 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)). Under this standard, the ALJ may reject a treating or examining physician's opinion if it is “conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole or by objective medical findings, ” Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted), or if there are significant discrepancies between the physician's opinion and claimant's clinical records, Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005).

         When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, it can be rejected only for “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. To satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must set out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Under either standard, “[t]he ALJ must do more than state conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and internal quotation omitted).

         2. ...

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