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Cancanon v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 8, 2019

Silvana B. Cancanon, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Silvana B. Cancanon, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 16). For the following reasons, the Court vacates the ALJ's decision and remands for consideration in accordance with this opinion.


         On May 22, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2013. (Tr. at 21). Plaintiff's claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 146; Tr. at 162). Plaintiff then appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 21). The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on October 13, 2015, as well as a supplemental hearing on April 5, 2016, and subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (Tr. at 21). Plaintiff then appealed her decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review. (Tr. at 1).

         In evaluating whether Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. at 23-31). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 24). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative changes of the spine, arthralgia and obesity. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of these impairments, either alone or in combination, met or equaled any of the Social Security Administration's listed impairments. (Tr. at 25).

         At that point, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2]concluding that Plaintiff could perform light work prior to August 25, 2015. (Tr. at 32). The ALJ thus determined at step four that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform her past relevant work as a “home companion.” (Tr. at 37). The ALJ did not reach step five. (Tr. at 38).


         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         However, the ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). “When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is because “[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted).

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) giving little or no weight to the opinions of treating physician Dr. Mertens and examining physician Dr. Peachy, (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiff's testimony as to her symptoms, and by (3) improperly discrediting the testimony of Plaintiff's daughter. (Doc. 16 at 1-2).

         A. ALJ's Evaluation of Various Physician Opinions

         “To reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “[T]he opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining physician or a treating physician.” Id. (emphasis in original) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). But if a treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another nonexamining physician, it may then be rejected for “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record for so doing.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Here, the ALJ gave great weight to the state agency physicians Dr. Keer and Dr. Metcalf. (Tr. at 29). The ALJ gave limited weight to the opinion of Dr. Peachy, and little weight to the opinion of Dr. Mertins. (Tr. at 29; Tr. at 28).

         1. Dr. ...

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