Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Vega v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 18, 2019

Kim A. Vega, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA, UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Kim Vega'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. 14, “Pl.'s Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 16, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 19, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 13, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 17-45) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed her Application on March 31, 2015, for a period of disability beginning June 30, 2014. (R. at 200.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on June 12, 2015 (R. at 24), and on reconsideration on September 30, 2015 (R. at 24). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 12, 2017. (R. at 24.) On November 6, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 21-33.) On March 26, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-4.) The present appeal followed.

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence 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 severe impairments: (1) lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, status post three surgeries; (2) osteoarthritis (or degenerative joint disease), status post bilateral total knee arthroplasty; (3) fibromyalgia; and (4) obesity. (R. at 26.)

         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 28.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can occasionally kneel, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, or ladders; never climb ropes or scaffolds; and frequently balance, stoop, crouch, and reach overhead bilaterally.” (R. at 28.) Additionally, the ALJ found Plaintiff “must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, humidity, and hazards such as heights and machinery.” (R. at 28.) Based on a Vocational Expert's (“VE”) answer to a hypothetical question, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a probation and parole officer and is not disabled under the Act. (R. at 32-33.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court addresses only the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001), as amended on reh'g (Aug. 9, 2001). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “unless 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 mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. Put another way, “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “[w]here evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ” but the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         “[H]armless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). “[A]n ALJ's error is harmless where it is inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court must “look at the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id. Importantly, however, the Court may not uphold an ALJ's decision on a ground not actually relied on by the ALJ. Id. at 1121.

         To 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. Id. § 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. Id. § 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 capable of performing past relevant work. Id. § 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 based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, instead relying on the opinions of nonexamining physicians; and (2) the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 1.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Giving Little Weight to the Medical Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician and Instead Giving Great Weight to the Opinions of the Nonexamining State Agency Medical Consultants

         Although “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence, ” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008), there is a hierarchy among the sources of medical opinions. 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 ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.