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McDonald v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 1, 2019

Robert Bruce McDonald, III, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          G. Murray Snow Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         INTRODUCTION

         Robert 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         The 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 physician.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

          Courts 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).

         II. Analysis

         McDonald 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 evidence.

         A. The ALJ properly discredited McDonald's symptom testimony.

         Evaluating 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 Cir. 2004).

         To 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 ...


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