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Rohrbach v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 19, 2019

Gregory Richard Rohrbach, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Gregory Richard Rohrbach's Application for Supplemental Security Income 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. 12, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 13, “Resp.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 16, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 9, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 19-31) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 14-17).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on March 18, 2013, for a period of disability beginning April 20, 2009. (R. at 22.) Later, Plaintiff amended the onset date to April 1, 2013. (R. at 22.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 14, 2013 (R. at 22), and on reconsideration on February 11, 2014 (R. at 22.) Plaintiff then testified at a video hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 8, 2015. (R. at 22.) On February 22, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 31.)[1] On December 7, 2016, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 14-17.)

         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: osteoarthritis of the right knee, history of knee surgeries (1980's), status post cervical laminectomy (1980's), history of shoulder surgeries, carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease and spondylosis, hypertension, and obstructive sleep apnea. (R. at 25.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled because while Plaintiff's alleged impairments “could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms . . . [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” (R. at 27.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a painter but has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for light unskilled work available in the national economy. (R. at 30.)

         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.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Giving Little Weight to the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physician Without Providing 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 and a treating physician's position at the top if it, 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 only 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); see also Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421-22 (9th Cir. 1988) (“The ALJ must do more than offer his conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.”). Normally, “[t]he opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of . . . a treating physician.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.

         Here, Plaintiff's two treating physicians reported that Plaintiff has severe physical restrictions. Dr. Narayanaswamy Deepak found that Plaintiff could sit for 15 to 30 minutes at a time and one to two hours total. (R. at 28.) Dr. Deepak also opined that Plaintiff could stand or walk for two hours of an eight-hour workday, could lift or carry five pounds occasionally, and could never squat, crawl, climb, or reach. (R. at 28.) Similarly, Dr. Nimfa Aguila found that Plaintiff could sit for 30 minutes at a time and for a total of two hours in an eight-hour day and could stand or walk for two hours during that time. (R. at 28.) Dr. Aguila opined that Plaintiff could frequently lift or carry five pounds and occasionally six to twenty pounds. (R. at 28.) When ...


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