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Singer v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 1, 2019

Terri Singer, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Terri Singer's Application for Supplemental Security Income 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. 17, “Def.'s Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 20, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 13, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 31-51) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-7).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on October 17, 2013 for a period of disability beginning July 1, 2012. (R. at 22.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on March 31, 2014 (R. at 22), and on reconsideration on September 13, 2014 (R. at 22). Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 15, 2016. (R. at 46-65.) On May 26, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 35.) On April 9, 2018, the Appeals Council denied a request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-6.) On June 6, 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 evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following alleged impairments: fibromyalgia; degenerative changes of the cervical spine with radiculopathy, migraine headaches, and obesity. (R. at 36.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404.” (R. at 40.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)” in a role such as administrative clerk or office manager. (R. at 40, 44.)

         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 in rejecting the examining physician's assessment and (2) the ALJ erred by discrediting Plaintiff's pain and symptom testimony. (Pl.'s Br. at 1.)

         A. The ALJ Erred by Rejecting the Examining Physician's Assessment

         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). “The opinion of an examining physician is . . . entitled to greater weight than the opinion of a nonexamining physician.” Id. at 830. “[T]he opinion of an examining doctor, even if contradicted by another doctor, can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31. “The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Here, the ALJ assigned minimal weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's examining physician, Dr. John Peachey, while assigning partial weight to the opinions of agency desktop reviewers. (R. at 44.) Dr. Peachey concluded that Plaintiff's “symptoms diminish her abilities to perform physical work-related activities, ” and that “a complete form of disability is recommended.” (R. at 44.) Conversely, the agency desktop reviewers opined that Plaintiff “can perform a full range of light work.” (R. at 43.) The ALJ found that the record contains insufficient objective medical evidence to support Dr. ...


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