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Huff v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 14, 2020

James Paul Huff, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DOUGLAS L. RAYES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff James Paul Huff's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits 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. 11, Pl. Br.), Defendant SSA Commissioner's Opposition (Doc. 12, Def. Br.), and Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. 13, Reply). The Court has reviewed the briefs and the Administrative Record (Doc. 10, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision (R. at 14-35).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed his Application on September 15, 2016 for a period of disability beginning on January 1, 2015. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on December 9, 2016, and upon reconsideration on March 8, 2017. (R. at 17.) Plaintiff testified at a hearing on December 5, 2017 and a supplemental hearing on February 15, 2018. (R. at 17.) On March 15, 2018, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's Application. (R. at 14-35.) This decision became final on July 11, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R at 1-8.)

         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: asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). (R. at 21.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and testimony and determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. (R. at 27.) The ALJ found that, through Plaintiff's date last insured (DLI), he had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with some limitations, including: occasionally climbing ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently balancing; occasionally stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; avoiding extreme temperatures, chemicals, odors, dusts, fumes, gases, and hazards, including moving machinery and unprotected heights. (R. at 22.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work but could perform jobs that exist in significant number in the national economy. (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 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 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 two arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred by rejecting the treating physician's opinion; and (2) the ALJ erred by rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony.

         A. The ALJ properly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's cardiologist because it was inconsistent with the medical records and not supported by objective testing.

         The ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's cardiologist, Dr. Paul N. Duong, because: (1) Dr. Duong did not treat Plaintiff prior to his DLI; (2) Dr. Duong's opinion was inconsistent with the medical records; and (3) there was a lack of relevant objective testing, which indicates Plaintiff was not as restricted as Dr. Duong opined. (R. at 24.)

         “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 ...


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