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Jordan v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 20, 2019

Charles Jordan, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          G. MURRAY SNOW CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the partial denial of Plaintiff Charles Jordan, Jr.'s application for Title II disability insurance benefits by Defendant Social Security Administration. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now considers Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 20, “Pl. Br.”), the Defendant's Response (Doc. 23, “Def. Br.”), Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 16), and the Administrative Record (Doc. 17, “R.”). Because the Court finds the decision free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence, it affirms.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff filed applications for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplement security income on November 30, 2015 for a period of disability beginning October 1, 2014. (R. at 16.) The applications were denied initially on March 21, 2016, and upon reconsideration on August 30, 2016. (R. at 16.) Plaintiff requested a hearing which was held on April 24, 2018 before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (R. at 16.) On June 11, 2018, the ALJ issued her decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of March 6, 2017 (R. at 15-28), which was upheld by the Appeals Council on August 13, 2018 (R. at 1-3).

         In finding the Plaintiff not disabled prior to March 6, 2017, the ALJ relied on the opinions of a consultative examiner, Dr. James Huddleston, and reviewing psychological consultants who each opined that Plaintiff was capable of work consisting of “simple and some detailed tasks” and “limited contact with the public and coworkers.” (R. at 23-24.) She rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Donald Holland. (R. at 25.) The ALJ's later finding of disability as of March 6, 2017 was supported by the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Ivan Engel, who opined that Plaintiff would be off task greater than 21% of an eight-hour workday, and the testimony of a vocational expert, who opined that an individual with the Plaintiff's limitations who would be off task for at least 16% of the workday would be precluded from all work. (R. at 25, 58-59.)

         Plaintiff brings this appeal alleging that the ALJ committed various legal errors in finding him disabled as of March 6, 2017.[2] (Pl. Br. at 1.) Plaintiff proffers a number of arguments as to why the ALJ's decision should be reversed, many of which raise common legal issues which are addressed below.

         This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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 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. As a general rule, “[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).[3]

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The ALJ properly considered medical opinion evidence.

         An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). The general rule is that the greatest evidentiary weight is given to opinions of treating physicians; lesser weight is given to opinions of non-treating, examining physicians; and the least weight is given to opinions of non-treating, non-examining physicians. See Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). Opinions of treating physicians are entitled to the greatest weight because a treating physician “is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual.” Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). In assessing how much weight to give any medical opinion, the ALJ considers: the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship (if any); the frequency of examination (if any); the extent to which the opinion is supported by medical signs and laboratory findings; the consistency of the medical with the record as a whole; the physician's specialization; and “other factors.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)- 404.1527(c)(6).

         If a conflict exists between medical opinions, the ALJ must resolve it. Morgan, 169 F.3d at 601. If the ALJ assigns lesser weight to a controverted opinion of a treating or examining physician, the ALJ must articulate “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. An ALJ may reject “the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957; see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004) (affirming rejection of a treating physician's opinion that “was in the form of a checklist, did not have supportive objective evidence, was contradicted by other statements and assessments of [claimant's] medical condition, and was based on [claimant's] subjective descriptions of pain”). An ALJ satisfies the “substantial evidence” requirement by providing a “detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his [or her] interpretation thereof, and ...


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