United States District Court, D. Arizona
Douglas L. Rayes, United States District Judge
Alfred Pompa seeks review of the Social Security
Administration’s decision to deny his application for
supplemental security income benefits. The Court has
jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and will
uphold the agency’s decision unless it contains harmful
legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.
Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).
argues that, in denying his application, the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to adequately account
for the limitations assessed by his treating physician,
improperly discounted the opinion of a consultative examiner,
and rejected his own testimony without adequate
justification. Having reviewed the parties’ briefs and
the administrative record, the Court finds the first issue
dispositive and remands for an award of benefits.
was 51 years old at the time of his hearing before the ALJ.
(AR 41.) He has paranoid schizophrenia, did not finish high
school, and has engaged in no past relevant work.
(Id.) Pompa applied for benefits in June 2013,
alleging that his paranoid schizophrenia prevents him from
working on a substantial and sustained basis. (Id.
received regular mental health treatment for his paranoid
schizophrenia from Dr. Suhaila Al Haddad both before and
after his onset of disability. Dr. Al Haddad opined that
Pompa has moderately severe limitations in his ability to
understand, carry out, and remember instructions; respond
appropriately to supervision; respond appropriately to
co-workers; and respond to customary work pressures.
(Id. at 500.) According to Dr. Al Haddad, this means
Pompa would be off task during 16-20% of an 8-hour workday.
(Id. at 501.) Dr. Al Haddad emphasized that Pompa
“experiences paranoid thoughts that impact his ability
to successfully interact with other people, ”
“has difficulty trusting others, even after knowing
them for some time, ” and “struggles to interact
with new people, even when he intellectually knows that they
should be trustworthy[.]” (Id. at 499.)
purported to assign “significant weight” to Dr.
Al Haddad’s opinion. (Id. at 21.) Indeed, the
ALJ identified no portion of Dr. Al Haddad’s opinion
that she found incredible, unreliable, or inadequately
supported. Based on her written decision, the ALJ appears to
have credited the entirety of Dr. Al Haddad’s
assessment. A vocational expert testified during the hearing
that a person with the limitations Dr. Al Haddad assessed
would be unemployable. (Id. at 71-72.)
the ALJ concluded that Pompa is not disabled. To get there,
the ALJ determined as part of her residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) assessment that Pompa “can
understand, remember, can carry out simple, routine,
repetitive tasks, but is limited to isolated work with
occasional supervision.” (Id. at 19.) Though
these non-exertional limitations account for Dr. Al
Haddad’s opinion concerning Pompa’s ability to
interact with others, it materially deviates from Dr. Al
Haddad’s opinion that Pompa has moderately severe
limitations in his ability to understand, carry out, and
remember instructions, and otherwise remain on task. The
vocational expert testified that someone with the less severe
limitations the ALJ incorporated into Pompa’s RFC could
work as a linen room attendant, hand packager, or cleaner,
thereby precluding a finding of disability. (Id. at
incongruity runs afoul of the legal standards established for
evaluating medical opinion evidence. A treating
physician’s opinion generally is entitled to great
deference because a treating physician is “employed to
cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the
patient as an individual.” Sprague v. Bowen,
812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987). An ALJ may reject an
uncontroverted treating physician’s opinion only for
“clear and convincing” reasons. Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). When presented
with conflicting medical opinions, the ALJ still must provide
“specific and legitimate reasons” before
discounting a treating physician’s opinion.
Id. Here, the ALJ claimed to have assigned
significant weight to Dr. Al Haddad’s opinion and
identified no portion that she found not credible yet
proceeded to omit material aspects of the opinion from
Pompa’s RFC. The ALJ’s RFC determination and
ultimate non-disability finding imply that the ALJ rejected
portions of Dr. Al Haddad’s opinion, but the ALJ gave
no explanation for doing so. This error is not harmless
because the vocational expert testified that someone as
limited as Dr. Al Haddad opined would be unable to sustain
determined that the ALJ committed reversible error, the Court
has discretion to remand the case for further development of
the record or to credit the improperly rejected evidence as
true and remand for an award benefits. Under the
credit-as-true rule, in deciding whether to remand for an
award of benefits the Court considers whether: (1) the ALJ
failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting
evidence, (2) the record has been fully developed and further
proceedings would serve no useful purpose, and (3) it is
clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find
the claimant disabled were such evidence credited.
Triechler v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 775 F.3d
1090, 1100-01 (9th Cir. 2014). All three conditions of the
credit-as-true-rule are met here: (1) the ALJ implicitly
rejected portions of Dr. Al Haddad’s opinion without
providing specific and legitimate reasons, supported by
substantial evidence in the record, for doing so; (2) the
record has been fully developed, so a reman for further
proceedings would not be useful; and (3) based on the
vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ would have been
required to find Pompa disabled had ...