United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Michael J. McShane, United States District Judge.
seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social
Security's decision denying his application for
Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance
Benefits. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Plaintiff filed his
application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability
Insurance Benefits on January 21, 2014. In both applications,
Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on August 5, 2013.
After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge determined that
Plaintiff was not disable under the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff now contends that the decision was in error. The
Court agrees. Because the Commissioner of Social
Security's decision is not supported by substantial
evidence, and because the record requires additional
development, the Commissioner of Social Security's
decision is REVERSED and the case REMANDED for further
proceedings consistent with this Order.
reviewing court shall affirm the decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security (“Commissioner”) if her
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, the district court must
review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both
the evidence that supports and detracts from the
Administrative Law Judge's decision. Davis v.
Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).
Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step
sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012).
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 then shifts
to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520
(2012). At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to
demonstrate that the claimant can make an adjustment to other
work after considering the claimant's Residual Functional
Capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work
present case, the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff was not disabled.
Tr. 21. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August
5, 2013, the alleged onset date of disability. Tr. 23. At
step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the thoracic
and lumbar spines; tobacco use disorder (in combination with
Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease); morbid obesity;
bipolar disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; and a
conversion disorder. Tr. 23. He also determined at step three
that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. Tr. 24.
moving to step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), adding that Plaintiff could
frequently climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds, and frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and
crawl. Tr. 26. He also limited Plaintiff to short and simple
instructions, occasional changes in routine, and simple
work-related judgments and decisions. Tr. 26. Next, at step
four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform any
past relevant work. Tr. 29. Nevertheless, at step five, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform several jobs existing
in substantial numbers in the national economy, including
electronic worker, assembler of electronic accessories, and
basket filler. Tr. 30. In doing so, he relied on the
testimony of a vocational expert and considered
Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. Tr.
30-31. Finally, having identified jobs existing in
substantial numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff
could perform, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled and therefore did not qualify for benefits. Tr. 31.
challenges the ALJ's determination on three
grounds. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ
failed to provide clear and convincing reasons supported by
substantial evidence for discrediting his subjective symptom
testimony. Pl.'s Br. 21-24, ECF No. 13. Second, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion
evidence. Pl.'s Br. 14-17. Finally, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ failed to identify legally sufficient
bases for rejecting “other” medical source
opinions. Pl.'s Br. 17-21. The Court addresses
each argument in turn.
Subjective Symptom Testimony
first argues the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing
reasons supported by substantial evidence for rejecting his
symptom testimony. Pl.'s Br. 21-24. As the ALJ
recognized, Plaintiff suffered from thoracic, lumbar, and
cervical spine impairments, as well as a conversion
disorder. Tr. 23-24. Plaintiff testified that he was
“unable to sit or stand for long periods of time”
and could not walk more than 100 feet without needing to stop
and rest. Tr. 312, 317. He added that he was unable to
“lay down without having pain” and struggled to
fall asleep due to persistent pain. Tr. 313. Plaintiff also
stated that he required assistance with personal care when
pain became “unmanageable” and, because of his
difficulties standing for extended periods, received regular
assistance with meal preparation and house work. Tr. 313-14.
Finally, Plaintiff reported that, since the beginning of
2015, he had experienced constant weakness and intermittent
tingling in his right upper extremity, as well as persistent
numbness, tingling, and pain in his legs. Tr. 67.
found Plaintiff's physical symptom testimony to not be
credible for three reasons. First, the ALJ noted
inconsistencies between Plaintiff's allegations and the
objective medical evidence. Tr.27. Although he conceded that
imaging showed “some degenerative changes of a moderate
to severe nature” in the thoracic spine and “mild
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, ” the
ALJ opined that other imaging showed only “mild
multilevel degenerative changes without neurological
involvement.” Tr. 27. He further reasoned that
Plaintiff “generally” had “full range of
motion in all extremities and normal strength, reflexes, and
motor function, ” as well as “normal gait [and]
sensation.” Tr. 27. Second, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff's course of treatment, which he described as
limited to “physical therapy and prescription
medications, ” was “very conservative.” Tr.
27. Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's activities of
daily living were also inconsistent with his claimed
limitations. Tr. 27. In particular, he opined that
Plaintiff's ability to walk for “20 minutes a
day” and “perform adequate self-care, prepare
simple meals, do household chores and go out to the
store” indicated a higher level of function. Tr. 27.
may only reject testimony regarding the severity of a
claimant's symptoms if she offers “clear and
convincing reasons” supported by “substantial
evidence in the record.” Thomas v. Barnhart,
278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002). “General findings
are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what
testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the
claimant's complaints.” Reddick v. Chater,
157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998) (quoting Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1993)). In assessing
credibility, the ALJ may consider a wide range of factors,
including “ordinary techniques of credibility
evaluation, ” as well as the claimant's daily
activities, objective medical evidence, treatment history,
and inconsistencies in testimony. Molina v. Astrue,
674 F.3d 1104, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). When
reaching an ultimate conclusion on the credibility of
specific testimony, however, the ALJ must be
“sufficiently specific to allow a reviewing court to
conclude that the adjudicator rejected the claimant's
testimony on permissible grounds and did not arbitrarily
discredit a claimant's testimony regarding pain.”
Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.3d 586, 592 (9th Cir.
2009) (original emphasis and ellipses omitted).
the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony.
The most glaring flaw in the ALJ's analysis stems from
his omission of any discussion pertaining to Plaintiff's
cervical spine impairment and symptoms. In addition to the
thoracic and lumbar spine conditions addressed by the ALJ,
Plaintiff was treated for several cervical spine-related
conditions, including a herniated cervical disk, severe
spinal stenosis in the cervical region, and cervical disk
degeneration. Tr. 604. These conditions were distinct from
Plaintiff's other back impairments and gave rise to a
distinct body of symptoms. See tr. 66. Plaintiff,
for instance, reported persistent neck and leg pain, as well
as muscle weakness, numbness in his right upper extremity,
and difficulty walking. Tr. 602, 604, 617. He received
physical therapy and, when that was unsuccessful, a cervical
diskectomy and fusion. Tr. 604. Importantly, after some
initial improvement, Plaintiff's symptoms remained
unresolved after the surgical intervention. Tr. 594-97,
617-30, 668. Although an ALJ's interpretation of the
record is generally ...