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Igou v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

April 24, 2017

PEGGY IGOU, Plaintiff,


          MICHAEL W. MOSMAN, Chief United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Peggy Igou challenges the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-423 and 1381-1383f I have jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision. For the reasons stated below, I have determined the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and I REVERSE and REMAND the decision for further proceedings.


         Ms. Igou filed an application for Title II disability insurance benefits and for Title XVI supplemental security income to the Commissioner on August 9, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 16, 2010. The claims were initially denied on December 19, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on April 19, 2013. Ms. Igou then filed a timely request on June 1, 2013, for a hearing to review the Commissioner's decision. An ALJ held a hearing on April 29, 2014, during which Ms. Igou amended her alleged onset date to July 1, 2012. The ALJ subsequently issued a decision on July 14, 2014, in which he denied Ms. Igou's claim for benefits on the basis that she was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act.


         The ALJ made his decision based upon the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (establishing the five-step evaluative process for SSI claims). As an initial matter, the ALJ determined that Ms. Igou met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Ms. Igou did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her amended alleged onset date of July 1, 2012, through July 14, 2014. At Step Two, the ALJ determined that she had the following severe impairments: partial coronary artery disease with one stent placement; diabetes; sleep apnea; and C5-8 mild degenerative disc disease. At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Igou did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P.

         Next, the ALJ determined that Ms. Igou had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, with the following limitations: occasional postural movements; never climb ladders or work at heights; never work near hazards; no crawling; seldom bend from the waist; walk only at a slow pace; occasionally perform overhead work above shoulder level bilaterally; occasionally use foot pedals bilaterally; no exposure to concentrated levels of dusts, odors, fumes, gases, and temperature extremes; no direct access to cannabis; and only superficial interaction with the general public. In addition, she needs hands-on training for workplace setting changes, although she requires minimal supervision. She can work independently, but with only a few coworkers at a time. She cannot perform security work. Finally, she would be off-task six percent of the workday in small increments.

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Ms. Igou was unable to perform any past relevant work. Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ determined that, given Ms. Igou's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could have performed as of her date last insured. Specifically, the Vocational Expert testified that Ms. Igou could work as a small products assembler or a bench hand. Therefore, she was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act, at any time through her date last insured.


         I review the ALJ's decision to ensure the ALJ applied proper legal standards and made findings that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting that the ALJ's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and not based on legal error). '"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). The decision must be upheld if it is a rational interpretation of the evidence, even if there are other possible rational interpretations. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Robbins, 466 F.3dat882.


         Ms. Igou argues the ALJ erred in denying her claim for disability benefits because his decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Specifically, she claims the ALJ erred at Step Two in failing to include depression, obesity, and lumbar degenerative disc disease as severe impairments. At Step Three, Ms. Igou argues the ALJ erred in failing to find that she met or equaled Listing 12.04. Next, she argues the ALJ failed to include all of her restrictions in her residual functional capacity. As a result, she argues the ALJ failed at Step Five to show there are jobs in the national economy she can perform given her residual functional capacity.

         Fundamental to these arguments is Ms. Igou's assertion that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of her treating and examining doctors, and her testimony. Accordingly, I first consider whether the ALJ properly evaluated those pieces of evidence. Then, I determine whether the ALJ erred during the sequential evaluation process.

         As explained below, I find that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinions of Ms. Igou's treating and examining doctors. He also failed to provide adequate reasons for finding Ms. Igou's testimony not credible. These errors were not harmless. As a result, the ALJ's findings at Steps Two, Three, and Five are not supported by substantial evidence in the record and must be reassessed.

          I. The ALJ's Treatment of Treating and Examining Medical Opinions

          Ms. Igou argues that the ALJ erred as a matter of law in giving "little weight" to the opinion of her treating doctor, Dr. By eon, and in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Dixon, a mental health professional who conducted a consultative examination on Ms. Igou. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's reasons for giving limited weight to these opinions are adequate, and, in any event, any error was harmless.

         There are three types of medical opinions in Social Security cases: those from treating, examining, and non-examining doctors. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is entitled to "special weight" because "he is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual." Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). Additionally, the opinion of an examining physician is entitled to greater weight than the opinion of a nonexamining physician. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31). "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, 881 F.2d at 751 (citation omitted).

         It is well-established that "the ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." Thomas v Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); see also Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 253 (9th Cir. 1996) (ALJ may "permissibly reject[] . . . check-off reports that [do] not contain any explanation of the bases of their conclusions"). A "physician's opinion of disability 'premised to a large extent upon the claimant's own accounts of [her] symptoms and limitations' may be disregarded where those complaints have been 'properly discounted.'" Morgan v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin, 169 F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 605 (9th Cir. 1989)). However, "an ALJ may not reject an examining physician's opinion by questioning the credibility of the patient's complaints, 'where the doctor does not discredit those complaints and supports his ultimate opinion with his own observations.'" Denby v. Colvin, l:15-cv-00191-SB, 2016 WL 917313, at *6 (D. Or. March 8, 2016) (citing Ryan v. Comm 'r o/Soc. Sec, 528 F.3d 1194 (9th Cir. 2008)).

         A. ...

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