United States District Court, D. Arizona
Murray Enow, Chief United States District Judge.
Joanne Doris Hamel appeals the decision of the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) of the Social Security
Administration denying her disability insurance benefits.
(Doc. 17). For the following reasons the decision of the ALJ
is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
Hamel has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”) and borderline personality disorder. In
May 2014, she applied for social security disability
insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of
February 11, 2014. The claim was denied in October 2014 and
upon reconsideration in January 2015. Hamel filed a request
for a hearing in February 2015, and a hearing was held in May
2016, at which she testified. Following the hearing, an ALJ
issued a written decision denying benefits.
followed the required five-step analysis for determining
disability. At step one, the ALJ determined that Hamel had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged
onset date. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Hamel's
post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality
disorder both constitute severe impairments. At step three,
the ALJ determined that none of Hamel's impairments (or
any combination thereof) met or medically equaled the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. The ALJ
then made a residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
finding. The ALJ determined that Hamel “has the
residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels but with the following
non-exertional limitations: the claimant would have mild
limitation in interaction with the public, moderate
limitation in interaction with supervisors and marked
limitation in her interaction with co-workers.” (Tr.
23). The ALJ also concluded that Hamel could perform
making his RFC finding, the ALJ considered testimony from
Hamel about the severity of her symptoms, as well as medical
opinions from various physicians that had treated or
evaluated Hamel's conditions. Regarding Hamel's
symptom testimony, the ALJ accepted her testimony insofar as
it was consistent with his RFC finding, but concluded that
“any allegation of greater limitation simply cannot be
supported by the overall medical evidence. The treatment
records indicated Ms. Hamel's symptoms were controlled
with compliance to medication and regular treatment.”
(Tr. 27). As for the opinions of various physicians, the ALJ
gave little weight to the opinion of Mehmud Ahmed, M.D.,
Hamel's treating physician; substantial weight to the
opinion of Jose Abreu, Ph.D., a consultative examining
physician; little weight to a second opinion from Dr. Ahmed;
and reduced weight to the opinion of Eugene Campbell, Ph.D.,
a state agency medical consulting physician.
four, the ALJ concluded that Hamel is unable to perform any
past relevant work. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined
that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Hamel can perform. Hamel did not
therefore qualify as disabled and was not entitled to
Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied
Hamel's request for review of the ALJ's decision in
November 2017. Hamel now appeals the ALJ's decision,
arguing that the ALJ erred by (1) rejecting the opinions of
Dr. Ahmed while according substantial weight to Dr. Abreu,
and (2) rejecting Hamel's testimony regarding the
severity of her symptoms.
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 ALJ'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). “[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if
supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record, . .
. and if evidence exists to support more than one rational
interpretation, [the Court] must defer to the
Commissioner's decision.” Batson v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir.
The ALJ did not sufficiently justify his decision to discount
Hamel's symptom testimony.
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