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Tyler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 6, 2019

MICHAEL R. TYLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          RICHARD F. BOULWARE, II UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Michael R. Tyler's Motion for Remand/Reversal, ECF No. 19, and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's Cross-Motion to Affirm, ECF No. 20.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ's opinion contains legal error that is not harmless. Therefore, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and remands to Defendant for further proceedings.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On September 3, 2013, Plaintiff completed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability since July 1, 2013. AR 14. Plaintiff was denied initially on February 3, 2014 and upon administrative reconsideration on October 8, 2014. AR 14. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and appeared on December 22, 2015. AR 14, 35-75. In an opinion dated February 26, 2016, ALJ Cynthia R. Hoover found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 14-27. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 29, 2017, rendering the ALJ's decision final. AR 5-7.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining Social Security disability claims set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, that ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 1, 2013. AR 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, type 2 diabetes mellitus, essential hypertension, peripheral neuropathy, and a depressive disorder with anxiety. AR 16. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. AR 17-19.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except Plaintiff can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and walk 4 hours and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour day; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards. AR 20-25. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work as a substitute teacher. AR 25. In the alternative, the ALJ found at step five that Plaintiff is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy such as office helper (DOT section 239.567-010), mail clerk (DOT section 209.687-026), and information clerk (DOT section 237.367-018).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability determinations and authorizes district courts to enter “a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” In undertaking that review, an ALJ's “disability determination should be upheld unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “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.” Id. (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)) (quotation marks omitted).

         “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing a decision, [a reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035. Nevertheless, the Court may not simply affirm by selecting a subset of the evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion, nor can the Court affirm on a ground on which the ALJ did not rely. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009-10. Rather, the Court must “review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion, ” to determine whether that conclusion is supported by substantial evidence. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Id. When reviewing the assignment of weight and resolution conflicts in medical testimony, the 9th Circuit distinguishes the opinions of three types of physicians: (1) treating physicians; (2) examining physicians; (3) neither treating nor examining physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). The treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight. Id. If a treating physician's opinion or ultimate conclusion is not contradicted by another physician, “it may be rejected only for ‘clear and convincing' reasons.” Id. However, when the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another physician, the Commissioner may reject it by “providing ‘specific and legitimate reasons' supported by substantial evidence in the record for so doing.” Id. A treating physician's opinion is still owed deference if contradicted and is often “entitled to the greatest weight . . . even when it does not meet the test for controlling weight.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 633 (9th Cir. 2007). Because a treating physician has the greatest opportunity to observe and know the claimant as an individual, the ALJ should rely on the treating physician's opinion. Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983). The ALJ errs when she fails to explicitly reject a medical opinion, fails to provide specific and legitimate reasons for crediting one medical opinion over another, ignores or rejects an opinion by offering boilerplate language, or assigns too little weight to an opinion without explanation for why another opinion is more persuasive. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012-13.

         The Social Security Act has established a five-step sequential evaluation procedure for determining Social Security disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010. “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1011. Here, the ALJ resolved Plaintiff's claim at step four, though the ALJ made findings that resolve Plaintiff's claim at step five in the alternative.

         IV. ...


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