United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
Michael McShane United States District Judge
Vickie C. brings this action for judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision denying her application for
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). This
court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
August 20, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB,
alleging disability as of April 29, 2014. After a hearing,
the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) determined
Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from April 29, 2014,
through May 8, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr.
13-28. Because the Commissioner's decision is
not based on proper legal standards and not supported by
substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision is
REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.
reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision
if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the
legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the
record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).
“Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere
scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” Hill v. Astrue,
698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v.
Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine
whether substantial evidence exists, I review the
administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence
that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's
conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th
Cir. 1989). “If the evidence can reasonably support
either affirming or reversing, ‘the reviewing court may
not substitute its judgment' for that of the
Commissioner.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir.
Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step
sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The initial burden of
proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps.
If the claimant satisfies his burden with respect to the
first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for
step five. Id. At step five, the Commissioner must
show that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to
other work after considering the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and
work experience. Id. If the Commissioner fails to
meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. Id.
If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is
able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in
the national economy, the claimant is not disabled.
Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th
1965, Plaintiff was 48 years old on the alleged disability
onset date and 51 years old on the date of her hearing. Tr.
168. She earned a high school equivalence degree and attended
college for two years. Tr. 44. Plaintiff worked as a nursing
assistant and hospital admitting clerk. Tr. 57-58. She
alleged disability due to limited range of motion, weakness,
pain, and neuropathy in the right hand and arm; back pain
with muscle spasms; depression; hypertension; insomnia;
diabetes; and “stomach problems.” Tr. 188.
determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
history of right elbow epicondylitis status post-surgery;
right shoulder injury status post-surgeries; mild bilateral
carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), status
post-release on the right; cervical degenerative disc
disease; left elbow epicondylitis; and fibromyalgia. Tr. 15.
The ALJ resolved that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform
light work, except Plaintiff could only occasionally crouch,
stoop, crawl, and reach overhead with the right extremity;
never kneel or climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; could
not tolerate hazards such as machinery and unprotected
heights; and required the freedom to change position every
thirty minutes while remaining on task. Tr. 19-20. The ALJ
determined Plaintiff could perform her past work as a
hospital admitting clerk, as well as other jobs in the
national economy, such as photocopy machine operator, office
helper, and electronics assembler. Tr. 26-28. Therefore, the
ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.
argues the ALJ erred by rejecting multiple medical opinions,
failing to properly consider Plaintiff's headaches and
mental health impairments, and finding Plaintiff capable of
performing her past relevant work as a hospital admitting
clerk. I address each argument in turn.
Medical Opinion Evidence
first argues the ALJ erred by rejecting functional
limitations assessed by consultative reviewing physicians,
Drs. Pritchard and Berner. Consultative physicians are
“experts in the Social Security disability programs,
” and an ALJ is required to “consider their
findings of fact about the nature and severity of an
individual's impairment(s).” SSR 96-6p,
available at 1996 WL 374180, at *2. Although an ALJ
is not bound by the findings made by consultative physicians,
an ALJ “may not ignore these opinions and must explain
the weight given to the opinions.” Id. Thus,
an ALJ “may reject the opinion of a non-examining
physician by reference to specific evidence in the medical
record.” Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240,
1244 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).
the ALJ gave only partial weight to the consultative
physicians' opinions. Specifically, the ALJ rejected the
doctors' assessment that, due to Plaintiff's CTS and
right-shoulder rotator cuff tear, Plaintiff could lift a
maximum of ten pounds and could only occasionally push, pull,
use hand controls, or reach in front with the right arm. Tr.
79-80, 99-101. The ALJ found those limitations inconsistent
with evidence demonstrating Plaintiff's symptoms improved
with treatment, as well as Plaintiff's ability to drive a
car, mow the lawn, and serve as a caretaker for her ailing
parents. The ALJ gave sufficiently specific reasons that were
supported by substantial evidence to reject the consultative
doctors' assessed limitations. For example, the ALJ
reasonably found Plaintiff's lack of complaints
concerning CTS in her right hand after undergoing CTS-release
surgery indicated the surgery was successful. Tr. 21-22.
Moreover, the doctors' assessed limitations concerning
Plaintiff's right arm is inconsistent with
Plaintiff's ability to operate a lawn mower, tr. 767,
which requires considerable pushing, pulling, and reaching to
the front. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in giving partial
weight to the consultative physicians' opinions.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by rejecting portions of
examining physician, Dr. Weller's opinion. “To
reject [the] uncontradicted opinion of a treating or
examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing
reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.”
Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir.
2005) (citation omitted). If, however, the opinion is
contradicted by that of another doctor, then the ALJ need
only provide “specific and legitimate reasons that are
supported by substantial evidence.” Id.
(citation omitted). An ALJ may satisfy the “substantial
evidence” requirement by “setting out a detailed
and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical
evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making
findings.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995,
1012 (9th Cir. ...