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Chisholm v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 30, 2019

Jason Chisholm, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES A. TEILBORG SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Jason Chisolm's (“Claimant”) appeal from the denial of his application for social security disability benefits. The matter is fully briefed, (Docs. 13-15), and the Court now rules on it.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Disability Determination

         To qualify for benefits, an applicant must first show he is “under a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). If he shows he suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him from engaging in any “substantial gainful activity, ” the applicant is disabled. Id. § 423(d)(1)-(2).

         By rule, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has created a five-step process for an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine whether the applicant meets the statutory definition of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). This process may end at any step at which the ALJ can find the applicant disabled or not. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the applicant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the applicant is not disabled. Id. If he is not, the ALJ proceeds to step two and considers whether any of the applicant's physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments are “severe.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If that threshold is met, the ALJ proceeds to step three to determine whether the applicant'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. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the applicant is disabled. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the applicant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). The RFC represents the most an applicant “can still do despite [his] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). At step four, the ALJ uses the RFC to determine whether the applicant can still perform his “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the applicant is not disabled. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the final step to determine whether-considering the applicant's RFC, age, education, and work experience-he “can make an adjustment to other work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         In this case, the ALJ found that Claimant was not engaged in substantial gainful activity at step one. (Doc. 12-3 at 18). At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments:

right shoulder impingement; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; bilateral hip arthralgia with a history of labral tears, status-post debridements; obesity; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified, adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood; nightmare disorder; anxiety due to medical illness; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and migraines.

(Id. at 19). The ALJ next determined that none of these impairments met or medically equaled anything in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. (Id.). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that-subject to various conditions-Claimant had the requisite RFC to “perform light work” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (Id. at 21-31). To make that determination, as pertinent here, the ALJ assigned little weight to the opinions of Dr. Colin Joseph and Dr. John Gilliam-who both treated Claimant. (Id. at 29-30). The ALJ also did not accept Claimant's allegations concerning the intensity of his hip and knee pain. (Id. at 27). Finally, the ALJ assigned little weight to a United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) rating decision assessing Claimant disabled. (Id. at 31). The ALJ ultimately concluded that Claimant could not perform his past relevant work but could make an adjustment to other work because, accounting for all his limitations, he could still “perform the requirements of representative occupations such as a router.” (Id. at 33).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         This Court may overturn the ALJ's denial of disability benefits only if it is premised on legal error or unsupported by substantial evidence. Luther v. Berryhill, 891 F.3d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 2018). “Substantial evidence means . . . . such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [ALJ's] conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014)). The ALJ, not this Court, draws inferences, resolves conflicts in medical testimony, and determines credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995); Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984). Therefore, the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision even when “the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation.” Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).

         Because harmless error principles apply in this context, the Court upholds the ALJ when the record makes clear that any error was “‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination,' or ‘if the agency's path may reasonably be discerned,' even if the agency ‘explains its decision with less than ideal clarity.'” Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). The Court “review[s] only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination, ” however, “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which [s]he did not rely.” Revels, 874 F.3d at 654 (quoting Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010); see Trevizo v. Berryhil, 871 F.3d 664, 677 & n.4 (9th Cir. 2017) (explaining that the district court erred by looking to the record and developing its own reasons to discredit a medical opinion); see also SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 88 (1943) (explaining that if an agency order's validity depends on a determination “which the agency alone is authorized to make and which it has not made . . . a court cannot intrude upon the domain which Congress has exclusively entrusted to an administrative agency”).

         B. Opinions of Claimant's Treating Psychologist and Treating Physician

         Claimant first argues that the ALJ's reasons for assigning little weight to the opinion of his treating psychologist, Dr. Colin Joseph, and his treating physician, Dr. John Gilliam, are legally insufficient. (Doc. 13 at 5-13). The Commissioner maintains that the ALJ considered proper factors under the applicable regulations when assigning these opinions little weight. (Doc. 14 at 4-11).

         “The medical opinion of a claimant's treating doctor is given ‘controlling weight' so long as it ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] record.'” Revels, 874 F.3d at 654 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). When it is not controlling, the ALJ should weigh the opinion “according to factors such as the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability, and consistency with the record.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6)). The ALJ must also consider any other factors tending “to support or contradict the medical opinion.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(6). Where, as here, the record contains conflicting medical opinions, the ALJ may reject a treating doctor's opinion if the ALJ provides, “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence, ” which generally requires “setting out a detailed ...


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