United States District Court, D. Arizona
Murray Snow Chief United States District Judge
Robert Bruce McDonald, III appeals the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying
benefits. (Doc. 1). For the following reasons the decision of
the Commissioner is vacated, and the case is remanded for
further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
McDonald has been diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Because
of the effects of the disease, which were complicated by
other conditions, McDonald filed an application for Social
Security Disability Insurance benefits in July 2013, with an
amended disability onset date of September 14, 2014. His
claim was denied initially in February 2014 and upon
reconsideration in October 2014. McDonald then filed a
written request for a hearing in November 2014. A hearing was
held in March 2016, at which McDonald testified before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”). In June 2016
the ALJ issued his written decision denying benefits.
followed the required five-step process for determining
disability under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At step one,
the ALJ determined that McDonald had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged
disability. At step two, the ALJ concluded that
McDonald's Crohn's disease was a “severe”
impairment. At step three, the ALJ determined that the
Crohn's disease or any other combination of
McDonald's impairments did not meet or medially equal the
severity of an impairment listed in the relevant regulations.
See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. The
ALJ then determined that McDonald had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels but with the limitation of needing
to have ready access to a restroom nearby. At step four, the
ALJ determined that McDonald could perform his past relevant
work as an online sales representative of electronics parts.
The ALJ therefore determined that McDonald did not qualify as
disabled and was not entitled to benefits.
Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied
McDonald's request for review of the ALJ's decision,
so that decision became final agency action. McDonald then
appealed that decision to this court as authorized by 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). McDonald argues on appeal that the ALJ
erred in (1) discounting McDonald's testimony concerning
his symptoms, and (2) giving very limited weight to the
opinions of McDonald's treating physicians while giving
significant weight to the opinion of the state agency
Standard of Review
apply a “highly deferential standard of review”
when entertaining appeals from the decisions of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d
685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). The Commissioner's decision
must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence
and is free of legal error. Luther v. Berryhill, 891
F.3d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 2018). “Substantial evidence is
more than a mere scintilla but less than a
preponderance.” Id. (internal quotation marks
omitted). “It means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d
664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017).
does not appeal the ALJ's determinations regarding
McDonald's mental capacities. (Doc. 16 at 3 n.6). As
discussed below, the ALJ's decision to discredit
McDonald's testimony regarding his symptoms was proper.
But the ALJ then erred by improperly weighing medical opinion
The ALJ properly discredited McDonald's symptom
a claimant's symptom testimony requires two steps. First,
the ALJ must determine whether there is a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment that could
reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's
symptoms. Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th
Cir. 2014). “Once a claimant produces objective medical
evidence of an underlying impairment, an ALJ may not reject a
claimant's subjective complaints based solely on [the]
lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the
alleged severity of [the symptoms.]” Moisa v.
Barnhart, 367 F.3d 882, 885 (9th Cir. 2004) (original
alterations omitted). The proper question is whether the
impairment(s) “could reasonably be expected to produce
[the] pain or other symptoms.” Batson v.
Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1196 (9th
discredit the testimony of a claimant about her symptoms, an
ALJ must give specific, clear, and convincing reasons.
Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 488-89 (9th
Cir. 2015). An ALJ does not satisfy that burden by merely
reciting the medical evidence that the ALJ used to support
her residual capacity determination. Id. at 489.
“General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ
must identify what ...