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Harris v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 28, 2018

Bridgett Harris, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is claimant Bridgett Harris's appeal of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) decision to deny disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 12). For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision.


         Ms. Harris filed a claim for disability benefits on November 22, 2013. (Tr. 13). She alleged that she suffers from fibromyalgia and obesity and has been disabled since May 1, 2012. (Tr. 13, 15). The claim was denied, and Ms. Harris eventually appeared before Administrative Law Judge Earl Cates on February 1, 2016. (Tr. 13). In evaluating whether Ms. Harris was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability.[1] (Tr. 14-15).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Harris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of May 1, 2012. (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Harris suffers from fibromyalgia and obesity. (Tr. 15-17). At step three, the ALJ decided that Ms. Harris's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment in the regulations. (Tr. 17-18). At step four, the ALJ determined Ms. Harris's residual functional capacity and found that she could perform medium work with various exceptions, such as frequently climbing stairs but never climbing ladders. (Tr. 18-25). As part of this analysis, the ALJ considered the opinion testimony of treating physician Dr. David Schumer and various consultative examining physicians and reviewing physicians. (Tr. 18-25). The ALJ then determined that Ms. Harris is capable of either performing her past relevant work as a child monitor or working in various other available vocations in the national economy. (Tr. 25-27). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Harris does not qualify for disability benefits. (Tr. 27).

         The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Ms. Harris's request for review. (Tr. 1). She filed this complaint on July 24, 2017 to challenge the denial of benefits. (Doc. 1).


         I. Standard of Review

         A reviewing federal court will only address the issues raised by the claimant in the appeal from the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). A federal court may set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). “When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, we must defer to the ALJ's conclusion.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2004). This is so because “[t]he [ALJ] and not the reviewing court must resolve conflicts in evidence, and if the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). A reviewing court may draw specific and legitimate inferences from an ALJ's decision, but it cannot speculate on the ALJ's reasoning or make “post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 554 F.3d 1219, 1225 (9th Cir. 2009).

         II. Analysis

         A. Family Nurse Practitioner Tamara Rector

         Nurse practitioners were categorized as “other sources” under the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d)(1) (explicitly listing nurse practitioners as an “other source” under the regulations).[2] “[O]nly ‘acceptable medical sources' can be considered treating sources, . . . whose medical opinions may be entitled to controlling weight.” Social Security Ruling 06-03P, 2006 WL 2329939 at *2 (citing 20 CFR 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d)). An ALJ “may use evidence from ‘other sources' . . . to show the severity of the individual's impairment(s) and how it affects the individual's ability to function.” Id. Nurse practitioners are therefore not entitled to the same deference as acceptable treating physicians under the regulations. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). An ALJ may discount “other source” opinions by giving germane reasons for doing so. Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         Tamara Rector is a Family Nurse Practitioner at the Multi-Specialists practice. (Tr. 464). The ALJ considered Ms. Harris's medical record from the Multi-Specialists practice in his decision, which included treatment notes from Ms. Rector. (Tr. 22-23). Ms. Rector completed a form opinion concerning Ms. Harris's fibromyalgia at the request of Ms. Harris's disability attorney. (Tr. 464-468). Ms. Rector opined that Ms. Harris's condition allowed her to sit for eight hours, stand for two hours, and walk for one hour in a typical work day. (Tr. 468). Ms. Rector also opined that Ms. Harris would miss one day of work per month, “[d]epending on type of job[, ]” and that she could only occasionally lift or carry five pounds and perform other physical acts. (Tr. 467-68).

         Ms. Harris argued that the ALJ failed to properly dismiss the opinion testimony of Ms. Rector. (Doc. 12). The ALJ summarized Ms. Rector's opinion, but dismissed it because nurse practitioners are not acceptable medical sources. The ALJ did not otherwise analyze Ms. Rector's “other source” opinion or give any germane reasons to discredit it. In its response brief, the Government agreed ...

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