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Butler v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 12, 2019

Cynthia Lynn Butler, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN J. TUCHI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Cynthia Lynn Butler's Application for 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. 12, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 16, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 20, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 9, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 19-31) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-4).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her initial application on May 10, 2010 for a period of disability beginning February 1, 2010. (R. at 94.) Her claim was denied initially on September 2, 2010, and upon reconsideration on February 22, 2011 (R. at 94.) She then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 18, 2011 (R. at 94.) where the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled from February 1, 2010 through May 30, 2011. (R. at 95.)

         Plaintiff subsequently filed another application on September 7, 2012 for a period of disability beginning October 19, 2011. (R. at 132.) Her claim was denied initially on January 9, 2013, and upon reconsideration on August 30, 2013. (R. at 132.) She then testified before an ALJ on November 13, 2014, and on February 20, 2015, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled from September 7, 2012 through the date of decision. (R. at 132.) Plaintiff appealed, and, upon review, the Appeals Council remanded the case back to an ALJ for reconsideration. (R. at 149.)

         On June 13, 2017, Plaintiff appeared before an ALJ to testify (R. at 19), and on October 2, 2017, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 31). Plaintiff then appealed the ALJ's decision on October 31, 2017 (R. at 5), and the Appeals Council denied her request for review (R. at 1). The present appeal followed.

         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. Upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following impairments: cervical dystonia, migraine headaches, and benign essential tremor. (R. at 22.) He also found that Plaintiff has a sedentary residual functional capacity (“RFC”) with postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations. (R. at 26.) Lastly, based on a vocational expert's analysis of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could work as a general office clerk, addresser, and document preparer, and is not disabled under the Act. (R. at 30.)

         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 treating physician's assessments, instead according partial weight to examining and nonexamining physicians; and (2) the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony in the absence of specific, clear, and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. (Pl.'s Br. at 12-23.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Discrediting the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physician

         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 ...


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