United States District Court, D. Arizona
HONORABLE JOHN Z. BOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.
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).
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.
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
[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
further found that Plaintiff is able to perform any of her
past relevant work.
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.
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.
Weighing of Medical Source Evidence.
argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions
of the treating physician, Dr. Ramin Sabahi.
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.