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Townsend v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 22, 2019

Robin Townsend, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Robin Townsend's Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 15, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 16, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 19, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 12, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 12-25) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Applications on July 30, 2013 for a period of disability beginning October 6, 2011. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on January 24, 2014, and on reconsideration on June 2, 2014. Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 17, 2015. (R. at 32-49.) On January 22, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 12-25.) On May 19, 2017, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-3.) The present appeal followed.

         The SSA previously granted Plaintiff's applications for disability benefits effective from March 15, 2008 to October 6, 2010. The ALJ in that adjudication determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled under the Act as of October 6, 2010. Regarding Plaintiff's current Applications, the ALJ in the present matter looked to Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691 (9th Cir. 1988), for the principles of res judicata as applied to prior administrative decisions. (R. at 12.) The ALJ noted that, in reviewing Plaintiff's current Applications, the ALJ was “not obligated to accept the prior finding of non-disability” under Chavez and that Plaintiff is required to show “material changes of circumstance indicating a greater level of disability” in his current Applications. (R. at 12.) The present review of Plaintiff's Applications is limited to his disability status after October 6, 2011, the new alleged onset date.

         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 found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of depression and anxiety (R. at 15), but that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work of all exertional levels but with some limitations: “the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks, he can perform jobs that do not include constant and/or regular contact with the general public, and he can perform jobs that do not include more than infrequent handling of customer complaints” (R. at 20). After hearing testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff can perform jobs in the national economy, including housekeeper and hospital cleaner, such that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.

         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 in assigning only “great weight” to the assessment of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist and “no weight” to the assessment of a licensed master social worker (LMSW) in formulating Plaintiff's RFC; (2) the ALJ erred by giving reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony that were not sufficiently specific, clear, and convincing and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. (Pl.'s Br. at 1-2.)

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Interpreting Dr. Ton's Assessment and Weighing Ms. Jones's Assessment

         An ALJ “may only reject a treating or examining physician's uncontradicted medical opinion based on ‘clear and convincing reasons.'” Carmickle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996)). “Where such an opinion is contradicted, however, it may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that must be upheld.” Burch v. Burnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Kiti Ton, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. (R. at 21.) Dr. Ton completed a mental RFC questionnaire for Plaintiff on May 12, 2015, in which Dr. Ton opined among other things that Plaintiff would have mild to moderate limitations in his ability to respond to customary work pressures; the questionnaire form indicates that “mild” is classified as off-task 1-10% of an eight-hour work day, and “moderate” is classified as off-task 11-15% of an eight-hour work day. (R. at 1764-65.) Dr. Ton also stated that he was not able to opine as to whether the restrictions he noted were in existence as of October 6, 2011, marking this question on the questionnaire with the word “variable.” (R. at 1765.) Dr. Ton noted that he would need to see medical records from October 2011 to present, including ...


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