Fargo v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

Filing 26

ORDER - IT IS ORDERED affirming the decision of the ALJ, as upheld by the appeals council. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED directing the Clerk to enter final judgment consistent with this Order and close this case. See attached for complete information. Signed by Judge Susan M Brnovich on 7/29/22. (SMH)

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1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 Jonni Michelle Fargo, Plaintiff, 10 11 v. 12 Commissioner Administration, 13 No. CV-20-01653-PHX-SMB of ORDER Social Security Defendant. 14 15 At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Jonni Fargo’s Application for Social Security 16 Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) 17 under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint, (Doc. 1), seeking 18 judicial review of that denial, and an Opening Brief, (Doc. 20). Defendant SSA (the 19 “Commissioner”) filed an Answering Brief, (Doc. 21), and Plaintiff filed a Reply, (Doc. 20 24). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (“AR”), (Doc. 14), and 21 the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision, (Doc. 14-3 at 10–27), and will affirm 22 the ALJ’s decision for the reasons addressed herein. 23 I. BACKGROUND 24 Plaintiff filed an Application for SSDI benefits on October 17, 2016, alleging a 25 disability beginning on April 1, 2013, but later amended to July 20, 2015. (Doc. 1 at 2.) 26 Plaintiff’s claim was initially denied on February 15, 2017. (Doc. 14-4 at 14.) A hearing 27 was held before an ALJ on August 21, 2019. (Doc. 14-3 at 14.) Plaintiff’s Application 28 was denied by the ALJ on September 11, 2019. (Id. at 11.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council 1 denied Plaintiff’s Request for Review of the ALJ’s decision, and this appeal followed. 2 (Doc. 1 at 2.) 3 Plaintiff alleges disability due to migraines, neuropathy, chronic pain, anxiety and 4 other issues. (Doc. 20 at 2–3.) After considering the medical evidence and opinions, the 5 ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments including 6 degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, migraines, obesity, peripheral 7 neuropathy, and anxiety disorder. (Doc. 14-3 at 17.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the 8 residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work but is unable to perform any 9 past relevant work. (Id. at 25.) She previously worked as a director of account 10 development, which is considered a light, skilled occupation. 11 considered whether the Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in the national economy and 12 found that she could. (Id. at 26–27.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable 13 of making a successful adjustment to other work and, therefore, classified Plaintiff as “not 14 disabled.” (Id.) Consequently, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff’s Application on November 15 11, 2019. (Id. at 11.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s Request for 16 Review of the ALJ’s decision—making it the final decision of the Commissioner—and 17 this appeal followed. (Id. at 2.) 18 II. (Id.) The ALJ then LEGAL STANDARDS 19 An ALJ’s factual findings “shall be conclusive if supported by substantial 20 evidence.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 1153 (2019). The Court may set aside 21 the Commissioner’s disability determination only if it is not supported by substantial 22 evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). 23 Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate 24 to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. Generally, “[w]here the 25 evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the 26 ALJ’s decision, the ALJ’s conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 27 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). In determining whether to reverse an ALJ’s 28 decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the -2- 1 decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). 2 To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Act, the ALJ 3 follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of 4 proof on the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett 5 v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether 6 the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. 7 §404.1520(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” 8 medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At 9 step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of 10 impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P 11 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically 12 found to be disabled. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant’s RFC and determines 13 whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 14 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). 15 determines whether the claimant can perform any other work in the national economy 16 based on the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience. 17 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If not, the claimant is disabled. Id. 18 III. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where she 20 C.F.R. § DISCUSSION 19 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed harmful error in evaluating Plaintiff’s 20 symptom testimony and in weighing the medical opinion evidence. (Doc. 20 at 14–29.) 21 The Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence and 22 free of legal error. 23 administrative records and agrees with the Commissioner for the following reasons. (Doc. 21 at 3–15.) The Court has reviewed the medical and Plaintiff’s Symptom Testimony 24 A. 25 An ALJ performs a two-step analysis to evaluate a claimant’s testimony regarding 26 pain and symptoms. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1014 (9th Cir. 2014). First, the 27 ALJ evaluates whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an 28 impairment that “could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or symptoms alleged.” -3- 1 Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035–36 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bunnell v. 2 Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Second, 3 absent evidence of malingering, an ALJ may only discount a claimant’s allegations for 4 reasons that are “specific, clear and convincing” and supported by substantial evidence. 5 Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). 6 When evaluating subjective symptom testimony, an ALJ must first find objective 7 medical evidence demonstrating an impairment that could reasonably cause a claimant’s 8 symptoms. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281-82 (9th Cir. 1996). A claimant’s 9 subjective testimony alone will not establish a disability, and an ALJ will determine 10 whether the claimant’s alleged limitations are consistent with medical sources. 20 C.F.R. 11 § 404.1529(a). Once the claimant has shown such an impairment, if there is no evidence 12 of malingering, the ALJ may reject a claimant’s symptom testimony only if he offers 13 “specific findings stating clear and convincing reasons to do so.” Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1283– 14 84. The Court will uphold the ALJ’s conclusion if “the evidence is susceptible to more 15 than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 16 2008) (superseded by statute on other grounds). 17 “[T]he ALJ must specifically identify the testimony she or he finds not to be credible 18 and must explain what evidence undermines the testimony.” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 19 F.3d 1195, 1208 (9th Cir. 2001). General findings are insufficient. Id. “Although the 20 ALJ’s analysis need not be extensive, the ALJ must provide some reasoning in order for 21 [the Court] to meaningfully determine whether the ALJ’s conclusions were supported by 22 substantial evidence.” Treichler v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th 23 Cir. 2014). “[T]he ALJ may consider inconsistencies either in the claimant’s testimony or 24 between the testimony and the claimant’s conduct.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1112. For 25 instance, the ALJ may consider “whether the claimant engages in daily activities 26 inconsistent with the alleged symptoms.” Id. (quoting Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1040). 27 Plaintiff argues the ALJ— using the wrong legal standard—committed materially 28 harmful error by rejecting her symptom testimony without clear, specific, and convincing -4- 1 reasons supported by substantial evidence from the record as a whole. (Doc. 20 at 23–29.) 2 The Commissioner argues the ALJ properly rejected the Plaintiff’s symptom testimony as 3 subjective complaints which were inconsistent with the medical record. (Doc. 21 at 11– 4 15.) The Court agrees with the Commissioner. 5 Here, the ALJ first found the Plaintiff has numerous severe impairments. (Doc. 14- 6 3 at 21–22.) 7 “inconsistent with the [Plaintiff’s] statements concerning the alleged intensity, persistence, 8 and limiting effects of the symptoms.” (Id. at 24.) However, the ALJ also found the objective medical evidence to be 9 First, the Court finds the ALJ did not use the incorrect legal standard. “Although 10 the Court agrees that Plaintiff is not required to provide medical evidence of the severity 11 of her symptoms, objective medical evidence is a useful tool for an ALJ to assess Plaintiff's 12 credibility regarding the intensity and persistence of [her] symptoms.” McPherson v. 13 Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. CV-21-08202-PCT-JAT, 2021 WK 3709845, at *7 (D. 14 Ariz. August 20, 2021) (internal citation omitted). The Court declines to read the ALJ’s 15 “not entirely consistent,” (Doc. 14-3 at 24), statement as requiring the Plaintiff to fully 16 substantiate her symptom testimony with objective medical evidence. See McPherson, 17 2021 WL 3709846, at *7; see also Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001) 18 (“While subjective pain testimony cannot be rejected on the sole ground that it is not fully 19 corroborated by objective medical evidence, the medical evidence is still a relevant factor 20 in determining the severity of the claimant’s pain and disabling effects.”). 21 Second, the Court finds the ALJ proffered clear, specific, and convincing evidence 22 supported by the record. The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s symptom testimony contradicted 23 (1) the objective medical evidence in the record and (2) other evidence in the record such 24 as Plaintiff’s course of treatment and Plaintiff’s self-asserted limitations. (Doc. 14-3 at 22– 25 23.) The ALJ offered nine reasons for rejecting Plaintiff’s symptom testimony. (Id.) For 26 example, the ALJ found that the record “reveals that the treatment has been generally 27 successful in controlling those symptoms.” (Id. at 23). The ALJ then discussed how the 28 Plaintiff’s treatment of medications, Toradol shots, Botox injections, and Belbuca strips -5- 1 helped the Plaintiff control her symptoms and noted that she reported “some symptom 2 improvement.” (Id.) The ALJ also examined the Plaintiff’s mental status. Although the 3 Plaintiff alleged being in a “fog” with symptoms of memory loss and concentration 4 difficulties, the Plaintiff scored 29 out of 30 on the Mini-Mental Status Exam (“MSSE”). 5 (Id.) The ALJ thus held that “the objective evidence and clinical findings do not support 6 the level of symptomology that the claimant alleged and are inconsistent with the 7 claimant’s statements concerning the alleged intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of 8 symptoms.” (Id.) 9 Therefore, the Court finds that the ALJ provided clear, specific, and convincing 10 reasons—supported by the record as a whole—for rejecting Plaintiff’s symptom testimony. 11 Consequently, the Court finds that the ALJ committed no error. Dr. Grove’s Assessment 12 B. 13 While “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence,” there is a hierarchy 14 among the sources of medical opinions. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th 15 Cir. 2008). Those who have treated a claimant are treating physicians; those who examined 16 but did not treat the claimant are examining physicians; and those who neither examined, 17 nor treated the claimant are non-examining physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 18 (9th Cir. 1995). “As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating 19 source than to the opinion of doctors who did not treat the claimant.” Id. This is so because 20 treating physicians have the advantage of in-person interaction and typically a longer 21 history of treatment than a claimant’s other doctors, and their “subjective judgments . . . 22 are important, and properly play a part in their medical evaluations.” Embrey v. Bowen, 23 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988). 24 An ALJ “may only reject a treating or examining physician’s uncontradicted 25 medical opinion based on ‘clear and convincing reasons.’” Carmickle v. Comm’r of Soc. 26 Sec., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 830–31). “Where such 27 an opinion is contradicted, however, it may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons 28 that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. An ALJ meets this standard -6- 1 by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting medical 2 evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 3 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). 4 Here, Plaintiff argues the ALJ committed materially harmful error by improperly 5 rejecting Dr. Grove’s assessment without substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 6 (Doc. 20 at 14–23.) The Commissioner responds that the ALJ—supported by the record 7 as a whole—properly discounted Dr. Grove’s assessment and properly assigned great 8 weight to the State’s medical consultants’ findings. (Doc. 21 at 4–11.) The Court agrees 9 with the Commissioner. 10 First, the ALJ provided specific and legitimate reasons—supported by the record as 11 a whole—for assigning Dr. Grove’s assessment little weight, finding it to be inconsistent 12 with the record and lacking anything more than minimal explanations for his conclusions. 13 (Doc. 14-3 at 24–25); see Carmickle, 533 F.3d at 1164. The ALJ offered five reasons for 14 assigning little weight to Dr. Grove’s opinions: (1) the assessment failed to provide what 15 the Plaintiff could do despite the alleged impairments; (2) the assessments were vague and 16 did not specify the length of capability to walk, sit, stand, bend, and perform other 17 activities; (3) the assessment failed to reference objective medical findings in support of 18 Dr. Grove’s opinion; (4) the assessment was inconsistent with the objective medical 19 evidence; and (5) the assessment was inconsistent with Dr. Grove’s own treatment notes. 20 (Id.) For example, the ALJ found Dr. Grove’s “ assessment that the claimant has severe 21 limitations and is unable to function is inconsistent with the objective medical evidence.” 22 (Id. at 24.) The objective medical evidence showed normal gait, negative Romberg, 23 standing without unsteadiness, normal strength, normal muscle tone, intact sensation, 24 normal reflexes, and no evidence of muscle atrophy. (Id.) (citing Doc. 14-8 at 25–26; Doc. 25 14-10 at 51; Doc. 14-10 at 74; Doc. 14-11 at 16, 26; Doc. 14-12 at 32; Doc. 14-12 at 60.) 26 Second, the ALJ properly assigned great weight to the State agency medical 27 consultants. (Id. at 24.) Not only did the ALJ offer four reasons for supporting the 28 assigning of great weight for the opinions, the ALJ also discredited the opinions she found -7- 1 to be unsupported by the record. (Id.) The ALJ found (1) the opinions were based on 2 Plaintiff’s medical record and included her particular impairments; (2) the State agency 3 consultants are aware of the evidentiary requirements for their opinions; (3) the opinions 4 were supported by the medical records and consistent with Plaintiff’s complaints and 5 treatments; and (4) the opinions were consistent with the objective medical examination 6 findings. (Id.) For example, the State agency consultants found the Plaintiff was still able 7 to perform past work, albeit with “some limitations in [Plaintiff’s] ability to perform work 8 related activities.” (Doc. 14-4 at 14; 28.) These opinions considered the medical records, 9 work experience, and other information in determining the Plaintiff’s ability to work. (Id.) 10 However, the ALJ did discredit the State agency consultants’ opinion regarding pulmonary 11 restrictions, finding this opinion contradicted evidence in the medical record that the 12 Plaintiff’s asthma was under control and without complications. (Doc. 14-3 at 24.) 13 Therefore, the Court finds that the ALJ did not error in providing little weight to Dr. 14 Grove’s assessment and in providing great weight to the State agency consultants. 15 IV. CONCLUSION 16 Having found no error, 17 IT IS ORDERED affirming the decision of the ALJ, as upheld by the appeals 18 19 20 21 council. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED directing the Clerk to enter final judgment consistent with this Order and close this case. Dated this 29th day of July, 2022. 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 -8-

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