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Lay v. Astrue

July 22, 2008

RING LAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge

ORDER: (1) ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION; (2) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; AND (3) GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Presently before the Court are Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 15], Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 16], Magistrate Judge Stormes' Report and Recommendation ("Report") [Doc. No. 19], and Plaintiff's objections [Doc. No. 20.] For the following reasons, the Court ADOPTS Magistrate Judge Stormes' Report and Recommendation, GRANTS Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

On November 17, 2004, Plaintiff Ring Lay filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Lay alleged that he became disabled on January 1, 2003 due to diabetes, headaches, dizziness, back pain, and arm pain. [AR at 289-95.] From 1995 to 2003, Lay worked as a Buddhist monk. [AR at 289.] The Commissioner denied Lay's application both initially and upon reconsideration. [AR at 27-31, 34-39.] Lay requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and on April 12, 2006, the ALJ conducted a hearing to consider the merits of Lay's application. [AR at 40, 286.]

The medical evidence before the ALJ showed that Lay received treatment for chronic head pain, low back pain, diabetes, and degenerative discogenic disease of the neck. On March 28, 2005, Dr. Elizabeth Locke performed a complete internal medicine examination of Lay and diagnosed hypertension, type II diabetes, and complaints of daily headaches and dizziness. [AR at 161.] Dr. Locke noted that during the examination Lay was in no apparent distress and had a normal blood pressure. [AR at 21.] The examination revealed a full range of motion in the shoulders bilaterally with tenderness in the left shoulder with abduction. [Id.] X-rays revealed no significant degenerative changes and no impingement syndrome. [AR at 164.] The results demonstrated a narrowing of disc space and early degenerative disc disease, but were otherwise negative. [Id.] Lay's neurological and cardiovascular exams showed normal limitations. [AR at 21.] Dr. Locke opined that Lay could lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally, and ten pounds frequently, and could stand, walk, or sit for six or more hours during an eight-hour workday. [Id.] Two reviewing state physicians agreed with Dr. Locke's opinion and found that Lay was not disabled. [AR at 172-75.]

On March 28, 2006, another physician, Dr. Minh Nguyen, examined Lay and found that he had one to two headaches per month, but that the headaches had improved and occurred less frequently after medication. [AR at 179.] On April 7, 2006, Dr. Huong Nguyen examined Lay and reported that he had a history of chronic headaches that prevented him from working in an environment with dangerous machinery. [AR at 180.] Dr. Huong Nguyen also completed a functional assessment and found that Lay was limited to sitting and walking for two hours at a time. [Id.]

Aside from reviewing the foregoing medical evidence, the ALJ entertained a vocational expert ("VE") at the hearing. The ALJ presented the VE with various hypotheticals encompassing aspects of Lay's physical and mental limitations. [AR at 297.] The ALJ asked the VE if Lay could continue to work assuming he suffered the limitations diagnosed by Dr. Locke and the reviewing state physicians. In response, the VE testified that Lay would be able to perform his past work as a Buddhist monk. [AR at 298.] The ALJ also presented a similar hypothetical based on Dr. Huong Nguyen's functional assessment. In response, the VE testified that Lay would be unable to work as a monk. [Id.]

After reviewing the medical records and testimony, the ALJ denied Lay's application for disability benefits. [AR at 10-19.] The ALJ found that Lay's impairments, while severe, were not disabling, and that Lay retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light level work. [AR at 20-21.] Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Lay could lift/carry twenty pounds occasionally, and ten pounds frequently, and could stand, walk, or sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. [AR at 21.] In determining the RFC, the ALJ affixed little weight to Dr. Huong Nguyen's evaluation because he found Nguyen's functional assessment inconsistent with the medical evidence. [Id.]

The ALJ also found Lay's subjective complaints of pain excessive in relation to the objective medical evidence. The ALJ gave multiple reasons for discrediting Lay's complaints, including the following: (1) on March 28, 2005, Lay reported that a CAT scan had negative results; (2) the medical records revealed that Lay's diabetes and hypertension were reasonably well controlled; (3) Lay had undergone conservative treatment; (4) Lay had not taken any medications that had imposed disabling side effects or medications at dosages commensurate with the alleged levels of pain; (5) no treating or examining physician had opined that Lay was totally and permanently disabled from work; (6) Lay was able to participate in the hearing and respond to questioning without any apparent difficulties; and (7) Lay described daily activities that were not limited to the extent one would expect, given the complaints of disabling symptoms and limitations. [AR at 22.] As a result, the ALJ denied Lay's claims for benefits. [Id.]

Lay disagreed with the ALJ's decision and requested an Appeals Council ("AC") review. After reviewing Lay's file and newly submitted evidence, the AC affirmed the ALJ's decision. [AR at 4-7.]

Lay then filed the present action challenging the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. [Doc. No. 1.] On April 4, 2008, Magistrate Judge Stormes issued the Report advising this Court to deny Lay's motion for summary judgment and to grant the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. [Doc. No. 19.] Judge Stormes found that: (1) substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision; (2) the ALJ provided clear and convincing reasons for discrediting Lay's subjective complaints; and (3) good cause did not exist to remand for consideration of new evidence. [Report at 7-13.] Lay now objects to the Report, primarily arguing that: (1) the VE's testimony had no evidentiary value because it was based on an incomplete hypothetical; (2) the ALJ erroneously relied on Dr. Locke's testimony; (3) the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting Lay's subjective complaints; and (4) good cause exists to remand for consideration of material evidence not reviewed by the ALJ. [Pl.'s Obj. at 2-9.]

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court reviews de novo those portions of the Magistrate's Report to which either side objects. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985); United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). The Court has no obligation to review the Magistrate's legal conclusions to which neither party objects. Schmidt v. Johnstone, 263 F. Supp. 2d 1219, 1226 (D. Ariz. 2003); see also Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d at 1121 (holding that "the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise").

The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will only be disturbed if it is not based on "substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error." Magallanes v. Brown, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The substantial evidence inquiry is solely whether the record, read as a whole, contains such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the ALJ's conclusions. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982); see also Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 509 (9th Cir. 2001) ("substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance"). If the evidence supports more than one interpretation, the Court must uphold the ALJ's ...


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