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Beighley v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 11, 2019

Arthur James Beighley, Jr., Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          honorable Susan M. Brnovich, United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Arthur James Beighley, Jr.'s appeal of the Social Security Administration's decision to deny his application for benefits under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial pursuant to 42. U.S.C. § 405(g), and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 12), Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration's Opposition (Doc. 13), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 14). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, “AR”) and now AFFIRMS the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision (AR 29-36).

         I. BACKGROUND

         The parties are familiar with the background information in this case, and it is summarized in the ALJ's decision. (AR 29). Accordingly, the Court will reference the background only as necessary to the analysis below.


         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The district court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court should uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012); see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (noting that the ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities). But the Court is tasked with considering “the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Finally, [courts] may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111. An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate non-disability determination. Id. at 1115. The “burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.” Id. at 1111 (quoting Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)).


         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) he has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment; and (3) his impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If the claimant meets his burden through step three, the Commissioner must find him disabled. Id. If the claimant does not meet his burden at step three, the ALJ moves to step four which is whether claimant can show that (4) his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents his performance of any past relevant work. Id. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that he is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show at step five that (5) the claimant is capable of other work suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         Here, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 28, 2013. (AR 31). At step two, the ALJ found chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) to be a severe impairment. (AR 31). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (AR 32). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “light” work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except the Plaintiff is limited to (1) lifting and/or carrying a maximum of 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) standing and/or walking six hours out of eight; (3) sitting six hours; (4) occasionally climbing stairs and/or ramps, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (5) occasionally stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and the Plaintiff (6) should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and unprotected heights. (AR 32). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a driver. (AR 35-36). The ALJ therefore did not proceed to step five.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises only one argument for the Court's consideration-whether the RFC is supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinion evidence, specifically the February 23, 2015 residual functional capacity questionnaire (the “Questionnaire”). (Doc. 12 at 1, 8) (AR 432-435). The argument is based primarily on Plaintiff's assertion that the ALJ erroneously attributed the Questionnaire as being issued by Dr. Cardone instead of Dr. Aslam. (Doc. 12 at 8).

         A. Applicable Law

         The Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give the greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than a non-examining physician. See Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6) (listing factors to be considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length of examining or treating relationship, frequency of examination, and consistency with the record). If it is not contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining physician can be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988)). Under this standard, the ALJ may reject a treating or examining physician's opinion if it is “conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole or by objective medical findings, ” Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted), or if there are significant discrepancies between the physician's opinion and claimant's clinical records. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005).

         When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, it can be rejected only for “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. To satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must set out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). Under either standard, “[t]he ALJ must do more than state conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted).

         B. Opinion Evidence in the Record

         The ALJ issued the RFC assessment considering the following opinion evidence: (1) opinion of Efren Cano, D.O., who administered a consultative exam, and to which the ALJ gave “partial weight”; (2) the opinion of Richard Cardone, M.D., treating physician, to which the ALJ gave “no weight”; and (3) the state agency medical consultants, to which the ALJ gave “little weight.” (AR 34-35). The ALJ further stated that the ...

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