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Parrish v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 25, 2019

Jason Parrish, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Jason Parrish's Applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits 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. 13, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 14, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 15, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 12, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 17-35) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and Disability Insurance Benefits on April 4, 2014 for a period of disability beginning May 15, 2012. (R. at 21.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on August 6, 2014 (R. at 21), and on reconsideration on December 18, 2014 (R. at 21). Plaintiff then testified at a video hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 23, 2016. (R. at 17-35.) On July 29, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 35.) On September 20, 2017, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-6.) On November 20, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial.

         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: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema; hearing loss; degenerative disease of the cervical spine; and an anxiety disorder. (R. at 24.)

         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 24.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with certain exceptions.” (R. at 26.)

         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 three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to take into account Plaintiff's manipulative limitations; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to consider Plaintiff's connective tissue disorder; and (3) the ALJ erred by discounting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 2.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Discrediting Nurse Practitioner Hanks's Opinion

         Plaintiff raises the argument that the ALJ erred by refusing to consider Plaintiff's connective tissue disorder. (Pl.'s Br. at 9.) The ALJ's finding on Plaintiff's disorder was based on discrediting the opinion of Nurse Practitioner Deborah Hanks. (R. at 31-32.) Hanks opined that Plaintiff has Lupus, which “causes chronic pain in joints.” (R. at 504.) This finding was supported by laboratory testing “indicating a positive ANA result and high Sjogren's Anti-SSA-B, ” yet the ALJ found that “these results on their own are not sufficient to establish a conclusive diagnosis, particularly a diagnosis by [a] non-medically acceptable primary care provider.” (R. at 32.) Because the ALJ's rejection of Hanks's medical opinion was her justification for refusing to consider Plaintiff's connective tissue disorder or its effects on his manipulative abilities, the Court construes Plaintiff's argument as an assertion that the ALJ erred in discrediting Hanks's opinion.

         The ALJ discredited Hanks's opinion in part because she is a nurse practitioner, and thus not an “acceptable medical source” per a section of the Federal Code of Regulations in effect at the time Plaintiff filed ...


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