United States District Court, D. Arizona
B. Johnson, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
G. CAMPBELL SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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.
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.”
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).
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.
is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony,
determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities.
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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).
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.
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.
Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
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).
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).
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).