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Hauk v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 18, 2019

Penne Hauk, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Penne Ann Hauk'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. 16, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 23, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 26, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 13, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 15-27) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on April 3, 2014 (R. at 15) and, a day later, an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (R. at 15) for a period of disability beginning August 21, 2012 (R. at 15). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on August 26, 2014 (R. at 15), and upon reconsideration on April 17, 2015 (R. at 15). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 22, 2017. (R. at 40-77.) On May 24, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 15-27.) On January 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-3.) On March 19, 2018, 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 found that Plaintiff has the following impairments: osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic pulmonary heart disease, status post hammertoe surgery, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, attention deficit disorder, and anxiety. (R. at 17-18.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404.” (R. at 20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c).” (R. at 20.) Based on a Vocational Expert's (“VE”) answers to hypothetical questions, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a screen printer and screen printer helper and is not disabled under the Act. (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 two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, instead relying on the opinion of an examining physician; and (2) the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms and limitations. (Pl.'s Br. at 2.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Giving Little Weight to the Medical Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physicians and Instead Giving Great Weight to the Opinion of an Examining Physician

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity and, although she suffers from severe impairments, they are not equal to those listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404. The dispute comes at the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's RFC, in which the ALJ found that, based on the entire record, Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; stand six hours; walk six hours; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and never be around unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts. The Court focuses on this assessment in concluding that the ALJ erred by relying on the opinion of an examining physician, rather than those of Plaintiff's treating physicians, in making her RFC determination.

         While “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence, ” there is a hierarchy among the sources of medical opinions. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). Those who have treated a claimant are treating physicians, those who examined but did not treat the claimant are examining physicians, and those who neither examined nor treated the claimant are nonexamining physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). “As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who did not treat the claimant.” Id. This is so because treating physicians have the advantage of in-person interaction and typically a longer history of treatment than ...


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