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Menendez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 2, 2019

Melissa Menendez, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendants.


          John J. Tuchi United States District Judge

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Melissa Menendez's Applications for Supplemental Security Income Benefits and 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. 18, “Pl. Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 19, “Def. Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 27, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, “R.”) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 14-43) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-8).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on March 16, 2015 for a period of disability beginning on August 1, 2014. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff's claims were denied on May 14, 2015. (R. at 17.) They were denied on reconsideration on August 25, 2015. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for a hearing on her claims. (R. at 17.) The ALJ denied her claims on January 16, 2018. (R. at 14-43.) On June 6, 2018, the Appeals Council denied her request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-8). On August 3, 2018, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the denials. (Doc. 1.)

         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: status post bladder surgeries, fibromyalgia, bursitis of the hip, obesity, knee impairment, hypertension, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, reflux esophagitis, and supraventricular tachycardia. (R. at 20.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and opinions and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. 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 C.F.R. Part 404. (R. at 23.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, “except that she should not be exposed to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights.” (R. at 24.) Furthermore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can “occasionally climb stairs and ramps”, but “can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.” (R. at 24.) Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the requirements of representative work such as telephone order clerk, charge account clerk, and bench hand. (R. at 34-35.)


         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 she 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 three arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinions of Dr. Kalinowski, treating urologist, and Dr. Hisscock, treating primary care physician; (2) the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's testimony; and (3) the ALJ erred in undervaluing the medical opinions of Dr. Campbell, treating orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Woodward, examining psychologist, as to Plaintiff's limitations. (Pl. Br. at 4-5.) However, because the Court finds the first two issues dispositive of the case, the Court need not address Plaintiff's third argument.

         A. The ALJ erred by giving minimal weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating urologist and primary care physician.

         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 medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given ‘controlling weight' so long as ‘it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in [the record].” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). If a treating physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, then the ALJ must consider the relevant factors listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)-(6) and determine the appropriate weight to give the opinion. Orn, 495 F.3d at 632. The failure to consider these factors is reversible legal error. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 676. It is error for an ALJ to disregard and not address a treating physician's opinion. Marsh v. Colvin, 792 F.3d 1170, 1172 (9th Cir. 2015).

         If a treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the ALJ may not reject the treating doctor's opinion without “setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983). A treating doctor's opinion will often be entitled to significant deference, even when contradicted. Orn, 495 F.3d at 632-33. An ALJ may not reject a treating doctor's opinion with boilerplate assertions or illusory ...

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