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Finnegan-Crews v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 25, 2019

Amy Lou Finnegan-Crews, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          G. Murray Snow Chief United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the appeal of Plaintiff Amy Lou Finnegan-Crews, which challenges the Social Security Administration's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 16). For the following reasons, the Court will affirm the ALJ's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 31, 2014 Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of November 6, 2013. (Tr. at 10). Plaintiff's claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 80; Tr. at 110). Plaintiff then appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 10). The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on August 16, 2016, and subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (Id.). 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. (Tr. at 11-16). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 13). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of arthritis, obesity, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (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 14).

         At that point, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), concluding that Plaintiff could perform light work prior to August 25, 2015. (Tr. at 32). The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (Tr. at 22). At step five, the ALJ determined that Finnegan-Crews could perform other jobs identified in the vocational expert's responses. (Tr. at 23).

         DISCUSSION

         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

         A. ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Krolik's Opinion

          “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).

         The ALJ discredited the opinion of Ms. Finnegan-Crews's treating physician, Dr. Krolik, for three reasons. The ALJ found that Dr. Krolik's alleged limitations were inconsistent with her own treatment records, the degree of limitation alleged by Dr. Krolik was inconsistent with the claimant's daily activities, and that Dr. Krolik's assessment was overly sympathetic and not based on the clinical evidence. (Tr. at 21). In her limitation assessment, dated September 12, 2014, Dr. Krolik specifically found that “claimant had extreme ...


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