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Cook v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 14, 2019

Geofrey S. Cook, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Geofrey S. Cook's Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 13, Pl. Br.), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 17, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 18, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 11, 12, R.) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision (R. at 17-32), as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1- 6).

         I .BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Applications on August 12, 2014 for a period of disability beginning on December 15, 2009. (Pl. Br. at 1-2.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on March 3, 2015, and upon reconsideration on August 7, 2015. (R. at 20.) Plaintiff then testified at a hearing held before an ALJ on May 16, 2017. (R. at 40-65.) On September 29, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Applications. (R. at 17-32.) On July 20, 2018, the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-6.)

         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 severe impairments: degenerative changes of the spine; residuals of remote left shoulder separation; remote history of seizures (alcohol related); and remote history of asthma. (R. at 23.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 32.) 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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. at 26.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light, skilled work, with some exceptions. (R. at 26.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day and sit for six hours in an eight-hour day; occasionally climb stairs and ramps but never ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; reach overhead, with occasional limitations on the left; and should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, unprotected heights, and moving and dangerous machinery. (R. at 26.) Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform his past relevant work as a “manager recreation establishment.” (R. at 31.)


         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. 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 he 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 two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the medical opinions of Dr. Jason Heavens, Plaintiff's treating physician, and Greg Mucklow (“Mucklow”) and Jami Cline (“Cline”), Plaintiff's treating licensed mental health professionals; and (2) the ALJ erred by failing to present a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert.[1] (Pl. Br. at 13-20.)

         The ALJ did not err by rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician and licensed mental health professionals. With regard to Plaintiff's physical limitations, the ALJ rejected Dr. Heavens's opinions because they were inconsistent with his own treatment records and the overall medical record. With regard to Plaintiff's mental limitations, the ALJ rejected the opinions of Dr. Heavens, Mucklow, and Cline because their opinions were unsupported by their respective treatment records.

         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)).

         An ALJ may only reject a treating or examining physician's contradicted medical opinion “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Carmickle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008). “The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         A. ...

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