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Burbey-Miller v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 26, 2019

Christopher Burbey-Miller, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Christopher Burbey-Miller applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning June 14, 2013. (A.R. 19.) The claim was denied initially on August 18, 2014, and upon reconsideration on February 26, 2015. (Id.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing. (Id.) On October 20, 2016, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 33-62.)

         On January 11, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (“Act”), which became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 4-6.) On November 7, 2017, Plaintiff sought review by this Court. (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 11), the parties fully briefed the issues for review (Docs. 15, 17). For reasons stated below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         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). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. 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. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the status requirement of the Act through December 31, 2018, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 14, 2013, the alleged onset date. (A.R. 21.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, degenerative disc disease status-post hiatal hernia, status-post inguinal hernia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, mood disorder, testosterone deficiency, anxiety and depression. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. (Id. at 22.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except he can occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop knee, crouch and crawl. [He] must not be exposed to fumes, odors or poor ventilation.
He should not be exposed to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights. He is limited to simple, routine and repetitive work tasks involving simple work related decisions and simple instructions with few changes in the work setting.

(Id. at 25.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff can perform past relevant work as an outside delivery driver. (Id. at 30.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 32.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         It is not the district court's role to review the ALJ's decision de novo or otherwise determine whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court is limited to reviewing the ALJ's decision to determine whether it “contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and “such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. The court, however, “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Id. Nor may the court “affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff challenges whether the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of his treating physicians and treating nurse practitioner, and rejected his symptom testimony.

         I. Opinions of Treating Physicians

          Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of Drs. Popa and Brown. In weighing medical source opinions, the ALJ should distinguish between three different types of physicians: (1) treating physicians, who actually treat the claimant; (2) examining physicians, who examine but do not treat the claimant; and, (3) nonexamining physicians who neither treat nor examine the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ generally should give more weight to the opinion of a treating physician than to the opinion of an examining physician, and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to the opinion of a non-examining physician. Orn, 495 F.3d at 631; Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987).

         Where a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another physician, it may be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons, and where it is contradicted, it still may not be rejected without “specific and legitimate reasons” supported by substantial evidence in the record. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. Likewise, when an examining physician's opinion is not contradicted by another physician, it may only be rejected for “clear and convincing” reasons, and when an examining physician's opinion is contradicted by another physician, the ALJ is required to provide only “specific and legitimate reasons” to reject the opinion. Id. at 830-31. “An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         A. ...


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