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Woods v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 30, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         Before the Court are Plaintiff Bobbie Jo Wood’s (“Woods”) Motion to Remand to Social Security Administration, ECF No. 10 and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill’s (the “Commissioner”) Countermotion to Affirm the Agency Decision, ECF No. 11. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that Defendant’s Countermotion be granted and Plaintiff’s Motion to Remand be denied. ECF No. 14.

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


         Neither party objected to the Magistrate Ferenbach’s summary of the background facts, and so the Court incorporates and adopts, without restating, that “background” section here. ECF No. 14 The Court adds the following procedural history.

         Plaintiff Bobbie Jo Woods filed her complaint on January 28, 2018, seeking review of a decision to deny her application for disability insurance benefits. ECF No. 1. On May 2, 2018 Plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand, arguing that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) improperly found that Plaintiff’s heart conditions were not medically determinable prior to the date last insured, improperly addressed Plaintiff’s medical evidence, insufficiently credited Plaintiff’s testimony, and improperly conducted its step five analysis by not hearing from a vocational expert.


         A district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party may file specific written objections to the findings and recommendations of a magistrate judge. Id. § 636(b)(1); Local Rule IB 3-2(a). When written objections have been filed, the district court is required to “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         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).[1] 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). However, the ALJ may reject conclusory opinions in the form of a checklist containing no explanations for the conclusions. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012).

         When a treating physician’s opinion is not assigned controlling weight, the ALJ considers specific factors in determining the appropriate weight to assign the opinion. Orn, 495 F.3d at 631. The factors include the length of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination; the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; the amount and quality of evidence supporting the medical opinion; the medical opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; the specialty of the physician providing the opinion; and, other factors which support or contradict the opinion. Id.; 10 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). The ALJ must provide a “detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and [make] findings” rather than state mere conclusions for dismissing the opinion of a treating physician. Reddick, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998). The ALJ errs when he 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 five.

         IV. ...

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