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Forman v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 22, 2019

Geread Lee Forman, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE DIANE J. HUMETEWA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Geread Forman'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. 11, “Pl. Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 14, “Def. Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 15, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 10, “R.”) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 14-36) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on April 8, 2014 for a period of disability beginning on March 26, 2014. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff previously filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits that was denied by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 22, 2010. (R. at 85-102.) Plaintiff's present claim was initially denied on August 13, 2014 and was denied again upon reconsideration on September 25, 2015. (R. at 17.) On May 2, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ for a hearing on his claim. (R. at 17.) The ALJ denied his claim on May 30, 2018. (R. at 14-36.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-6.) On October 5, 2018, Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial. (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: spine disorders, disorders of the muscle, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar affective disorder, personality disorder, and polysubstance dependence. (R. at 20.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 28.) 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, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. at 20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light work, ” except that Plaintiff “could occasionally climb stairs/ramps, balance, stoop, kneel[, ] crouch and crawl. He is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. In addition, he needs to avoid frequent contact with [the] public, co-workers and supervisors and is limited to simple unskilled work.” (R. at 21.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [Plaintiff] can perform.” (R. at 27.)

         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, 495 F.3d at 630. 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. Generally, “[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 a pair of arguments which challenge the ALJ's consideration of medical opinions offered by Plaintiff's medical providers. (Pl. Br. at 5.) First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by giving minimal weight to the opinion of Dr. Dan Muschevici, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. (R. at 9.) Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by giving minimal weight to the opinion of Hazel Mahatha, Plaintiff's board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. (R. at 6.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff. The ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of Dr. Muschevici and Ms. Mahatha. Consequently, substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's non-disability determination and it must be reversed.

         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.

         If a treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the ALJ cannot reject the treating physician'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 physician'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 contradictions between doctors based on isolated reports rather than the record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012-14 (9th Cir. 2014).

         Treating nurse-practitioners are not afforded the same weight as treating physicians under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d) (2014). Instead nurse-practitioners are classified as an “other medical source.” Id. To reject a treating nurse-practitioner's opinion the ALJ must provide germane reasons ...


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