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Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 4, 2019

Ivy Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE SUSAN M. BRNOVICH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Ivy Johnson's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1), and an Amended Complaint (Doc. 14), with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 24, Pl. Br.), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 28, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 29, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 18, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 15-33) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-6).

         I.BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on February 21, 2012 for a period of disability beginning on February 17, 2011. (R. at 67.) On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (R. at 99.) The ALJ denied her claim but the Appeals Council remanded the case for a reassessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) showing full consideration of Plaintiff's mental impairments. (R. at 119.) Plaintiff's second hearing before the ALJ was on October 18, 2016. (R. at 15.) The same ALJ denied her claim on January 4, 2017. On November 17, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 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. At the second hearing, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's disability based on the following severe impairments: cardiac arrhythmia with pacemaker implant and hypertension. (R. at 20.) Unlike at the first hearing, the ALJ did not consider Plaintiff's affective disorder a severe impairment. (R. at 20, 101.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 27.) 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 22.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform “light work, ” except that she would be prevented from “climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, frequent climbing ramps and stairs and frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.” (R. at 22.) Furthermore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff should not be exposed to “dust, fumes, gases, or other respiratory irritants, ” and that she has “the ability to understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions.” (R. at 22.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was capable of performing past relevant work as a social worker and social worker (mental).” (R. at 26.)

         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 three arguments for the Court's consideration. (Pl. Br. at 1.) First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by giving minimal weight to the opinion of Dr. Kevin Berman, Plaintiff's treating cardiologist. (Pl. Br. at 1.) Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly weighed medical opinions concerning Plaintiff's mental impairments. (Pl. Br. at 1.) Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not properly credit Plaintiff's testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms. (Pl. Br. at 1.) The Court disagrees with all three of Plaintiff's arguments. To the extent the ALJ erred, such error was harmless because substantial evidence supports the ALJ's non-disability determination.

         A. The ALJ did not err by giving Dr. Berman's opinion minimal weight.

         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. However, if a treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, the ALJ can reject the treating physician's opinion by “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).

         On August 5, 2011, Dr. Berman completed an Attending Physician's Statement of Disability for Plaintiff. (R. at 338.) Dr. Berman diagnosed Plaintiff with syncope, hypertension, left bundle branch block, and symptoms of vertigo. (R. at 338.) He opined that Plaintiff had various functional limitations including, an ability to sit, stand, and walk for only one hour per day. (R. at 338.) He also found that Plaintiff could occasionally bend, stoop, climb, push, pull, lift, and ...


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