United States District Court, D. Arizona
G. Campbell, Senior United States District Judge.
Audra H. seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which
denied her disability insurance benefits under sections
216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act.
For the following reasons, the Court will reverse the
decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”),
and remand for additional proceedings.
is a 61-year-old woman with a high-school education, and she
previously worked as a front-desk clerk, phone operator, and
caregiver. A.R. 44, 46-48. Plaintiff applied for disability
benefits on December 6, 2013, alleging disability beginning
October 23, 2013. A.R. 11. Plaintiff and a vocational expert
appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R.
40-84. On March 15, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable
decision, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. A.R. 11-21. The
ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final
decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review on April 19, 2018. A.R. 1-4.
Court reviews only those issues raised by the party
challenging the ALJ's 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, less than a preponderance, and
relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a
whole. Id. In determining 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. (internal citations and quotation marks
omitted). 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). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in
medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving
ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039
(9th Cir. 1995). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the
Court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing
specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's
opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747,
755 (9th Cir. 1989).
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the
Social Security 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, and 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 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. § 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. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled.
Id. 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. Id. If not, the ALJ
proceeds to the fifth and final step to determine 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. Id.
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30,
2016, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 23, 2013. A.R. 13. At step two, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: vision loss in the right eye; peripheral
neuropathy; osteoarthritis of the right foot and bilateral
wrists; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post release
on the left; bilateral cubital tunnel syndrome; left ring
finger trigger finger, status post release; and lumbar
degenerative disc disease. A.R. 13. At step three, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a
listed impairment. A.R 16. At step four, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, and was capable
of performing past relevant work as a personal attendant,
front desk clerk, and casino reservation clerk. A.R. 16, 21.
argues the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons:
(1) the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's
treating physician; and (2) the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's
symptom testimony without specific, clear, and convincing
reasons, supported by substantial evidence. Doc. 12 at 1-2.
Medical Opinion Evidence.
physician's opinion may be a treating source, examining
source, or non-examining source. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527 (evaluating opinion evidence for claims filed
before March 2017); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821,
830 (9th Cir. 1995). A treating physician is one who provides
or has provided the claimant with medical treatment or
evaluation, or who has an ongoing treatment relationship with
the claimant. Id. at § 404.1527(a)(2).
Generally, an ALJ should give greatest weight to a treating
physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an
examining physician than a non-examining physician. See
Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040-41; see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6). “The ALJ must do more than
offer his conclusions. He must set forth his own
interpretations and explain why they, rather than the
doctors', are correct.” Embrey v. Bowen,
849 F.2d 418, 421-22 (9th Cir. 1988). The Commissioner is
responsible for determining whether a claimant meets the
statutory definition of disability and does not give
significance to a statement by a medical source that the
claimant is “disabled” or “unable to
work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d).
gave limited weight to the assessment by treating physician,
Dr. Mary Janikowski. A.R. 20. Because Dr. Janikowksi is a
treating source whose opinion was contradicted by
consultative examining physician Dr. Tromp, the ALJ could
discount her opinion only for specific and legitimate reasons
supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31.
19, 2016, Dr. Janikowski opined that Plaintiff could
continuously sit for thirty minutes to an hour, and sit for
three hours per day; stand and walk for thirty minutes to an
hour at a time, and for two hours or less per day; frequently
lift and carry five pounds, occasionally lift and carry ten
pounds, and rarely lift and carry more than ten pounds;
occasionally reach, and rarely stoop, squat, crawl, or climb;
frequently handle, grip, or grasp; rarely push or pull
controls; frequently do fingering or fine manipulation; use
either foot for repetitive movements, but not both; has a
moderate restriction for occupational driving, but no
restrictions for unprotected heights, moving machinery,
exposure to dust, fumes, gases, or marked changes in
temperature and humidity; and has moderately severe
limitations from pain and fatigue. Dr. Janikowski based her
opinion on Plaintiff's medical records, clinical
observations, lab and other diagnostics, and her knowledge of
Plaintiff's presenting diseases and disorders. A.R.
Dr. Janikowski's opinion, the ALJ stated:
While I accepted the assessment that the claimant's
impairments resulted in more than minimal limitations with
her ability to perform work related activities[, ] the
limitations assessed by Dr. Janikowski appeared to rely
heavily on the claimant's subjective allegations and were
inconsistent with available physical examination results and
review of systems, which, as discussed in this decision,
routinely showed ...