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Arbizu v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 17, 2019

Amanda Rae Arbizu, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN Z. BOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Amanda Arbizu seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. Because the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on legal error, the Court will reverse and remand for an award of benefits.

         I. Background.

         On February 27, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning May 4, 2010. On August 21, 2014, ALJ Ted Armbruster heard Plaintiff's case. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her onset date to July 1, 2012 with a date last insured of December 31, 2015. On May 27, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded the case based on new and material evidence of Plaintiff's mental limitations. On April 5, 2017, she appeared with her attorney and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A vocational expert also testified. On June 22, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district 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. 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).

         Harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless if there remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision and the error does not affect the ultimate non-disability determination. Id. The claimant usually bears the burden of showing that an error is harmful. Id. at 1111.

         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).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         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, but at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. 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, where he determines 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. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: unspecified myalgia, myositis, or arthralgia; degenerative changes of the lumbar spine; obesity; and headaches. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:

[L]ight work (lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sitting for at least six hours out of eight; and standing/walking at least six hours out of eight) as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and occasionally stoop, kneel[, ] crouch or crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to loud noise, unprotected heights, and moving and dangerous machinery.

(AR 23.)

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff is able to perform any of her past relevant work.

         At step five, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform.

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision is defective for three reasons: (1) the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Sabahi's assessments, (2) the ALJ erred in discounting Plaintiff's credibility regarding her symptom testimony; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to find fibromyalgia to be a severe impairment. (Doc. 17 at 1.) Plaintiff's first two arguments are dispositive, and the Court will address each one below.

         A. Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions of the treating physician, Dr. Ramin Sabahi.

         1. Legal Standard.

         The Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an ALJ should give greatest weight to a treating physician's opinion and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to one of a non-examining physician. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 1995); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6) (listing factors to be considered when evaluating opinion evidence, including length of examining or treating relationship, frequency of examination, consistency with the record, and support from objective evidence). If it is not contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the opinion of a treating or examining physician can be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. ...


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