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Albanaa v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 19, 2019

Sabah Albanaa, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOMINIC W. LANZA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Sabah Albanaa'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. 14, “Pl. Br.”), Defendant Social Security Administration Commissioner's Response Brief (Doc. 15, “Def. Br.”), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 16, “Reply”). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, “R.”) and now affirms the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 14-34) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-8).[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on March 24, 2014 for a period of disability beginning on January 24, 2014. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on May 23, 2014 and was denied again upon reconsideration on November 13, 2014. (R. at 17.) On August 9, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for a hearing on his claim. (R. at 17.) Following the hearing, the ALJ held the record open and requested that Plaintiff attend a psychological consultative examination. (R. at 17.) This examination took place on November 2, 2016, and was administered by Dr. Michael Rabara. (R. at 17.) After considering Dr. Rabara's report, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim on July 17, 2017. (R. at 14-34.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-8.) On August 29, 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 severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder; adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression; major depression disorder; and unspecified trauma and stressor-related disorder. (R. at 19.)[2]

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 29.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: he is able to perform simple, routine tasks in an environment with few changes and free from fast-paced production requirements, like those found in assembly line work.” (R. at 22.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff “requires redirection at the start of each shift and after the lunch break” and that he “can have occasional and superficial interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the public, such that he can work in proximity to, but not in tandem with, others.” (R. at 22.) Finally, 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

         The Court addresses only the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001), as amended on reh'g (Aug. 9, 2001). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Id. Put another way, “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court should uphold the ALJ's decision “[w]here evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ” but the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         “[H]armless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). “[A]n ALJ's error is harmless where it is inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court must “look at the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id. Importantly, however, the Court may not uphold an ALJ's decision on a ground not actually relied on by the ALJ. Id. at 1121.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security 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, and 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 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. Id. § 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. pt. 404. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work. Id. § 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, which addresses whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises a single argument for the Court's consideration: the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the opinion of Dr. Rabara, Plaintiff's examining psychologist. (Pl. Br. at 8-9.) The ALJ chose to give little weight to Dr. Rabara's opinion because she concluded that (1) it was “not consistent with the entirety of the record” and (2) it was “internally inconsistent.” (R. at 25.) As explained below, the Court disagrees with Plaintiff-the ALJ provided specific, legitimate reasons for reaching these conclusions. Thus, the ALJ did not commit reversible error by assigning little weight to Dr. Rabara's opinion.

         Although “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence, ” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008), there is a hierarchy among the sources of medical opinions. 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).

         Given this hierarchy, an ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining physician. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995). In contrast, in an examining physician's opinion is contradicted by the opinions of other doctors (even non-examining doctors), a lesser standard applies-an ALJ may reject such an ...


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