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Hamel v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 5, 2019

Joanne Doris Hamel, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          G. Murray Enow, Chief United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.


         Joanne 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.

         The ALJ 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 unskilled work.

         In 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.

         At step 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 benefits.

         The 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.


         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 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. 2004).

         II. Analysis

         A. The ALJ did not sufficiently justify his decision to discount Hamel'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 ...

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