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Dejno v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 20, 2019

Scott P. Dejno, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Scott P. Dejno's Application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) and an Amended Complaint (Doc. 26) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 13, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 18, “Resp.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 22, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 9, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 30-43) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-7).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on May 6, 2013 for a period of disability beginning December 4, 2012. (R. at 30.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on November 4, 2013 (R. at 30), and on reconsideration on February 21, 2014 (R. at 30). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 24, 2015. (R. at 30-43.) On November 20, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 43.) On April 25, 2017, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-7.) On June 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial. (Doc. 26 at 2.) Plaintiff later filed a second application for benefits, which the SSA approved on January 14, 2018. (Doc. 26 at 2.) In awarding Plaintiff benefits, the SSA found Plaintiff disabled from November 26, 2015 onwards. (Doc. 26 at 2.) Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint to reflect this development, and the scope of the Court's review is therefore limited to the period between Plaintiff's alleged onset date of December 4, 2012 and November 25, 2015. (Doc. 26 at 2.)

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following alleged impairments: tachybrady syndrome; status post permanent pace-maker emplacement, with a residual component of multifactorial orthostatic light-headedness; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; type II diabetes with peripheral neuropathy in the lower extremities; and obesity. (R. at 32.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404.” (R. at 32.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a tractor trailer truck driver. (R. at 40.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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 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 considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; and (2) the ALJ erred by discrediting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 1.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Partially Discrediting the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physician

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when she afforded the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Thomas Edwards, “some weight.” (R. at 39.) The Court finds that the ALJ did indeed fail to articulate clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence, to partially discredit Dr. Edwards's testimony. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995) (requiring “clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining physician) (internal citations omitted).

         The ALJ largely relied on a contradiction between Dr. Edwards's answers on a Dizziness Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire and prior documentation of Plaintiff's disorder. (R. at 39.) In the 2015 RFC report, Dr. Edwards indicated that Plaintiff suffered from dizziness episodes between five and ten times per day. (R. at 438.) But in a 2014 event monitor test ordered by another of Plaintiff's doctors-Dr. Jon Stevenson, who did not provide medical testimony in this proceeding-Plaintiff experienced only eight episodes in thirty-five days. (R. at 36.) The difference between eight episodes and as many as 350 in the same time ...


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