IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA
September 2, 2008
CATHY THOMASON,*FN1 PLAINTIFF,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.
FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS
Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying an application for Disability Income Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). For the reasons discussed below, the court recommends that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or remand be denied and that the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment be granted.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
In a decision dated September 16, 2006, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled.*fn2 The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. The ALJ found plaintiff has a severe impairment of mild degenerative disc disease, which does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, as well as documented alcoholic cirrhosis and hepatitis; plaintiff retained the ability to perform a significant range of light work; plaintiff was precluded from performing his past relevant work; using the Medical-Vocational Guidelines as a framework for decision making and based on the testimony of a vocational expert, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff can perform; and plaintiff is not disabled. Administrative Transcript ("AT") 20-21. Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly discounted record medical opinions and improperly discredited plaintiff's testimony and that of his wife.
II. Standard of Review
The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Copeland v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 536, 538 (9th Cir. 1988) (citing Desrosiers v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 575-76 (9th Cir. 1988)). Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975)). "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402, 91 S.Ct. 1420 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986), and both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion weighed. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, see Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, see Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
A. Medical Opinions
Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of two of plaintiff's treating physicians, Drs. Kiekhaeffer and Farshad. The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual. Id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996).
To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) contradictory opinions are in the record, and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. An ALJ may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for "clear and convincing" reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for "specific and legitimate" reasons, that are supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 830. While a treating professional's opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by a supported examining professional's opinion (e.g., supported by different independent clinical findings), the ALJ may resolve the conflict. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)). In any event, the ALJ need not give weight to conclusory opinions supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (treating physician's conclusory, minimally supported opinion rejected); see also Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. The opinion of a non-examining professional, without other evidence, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.
Dr. Kiekhaeffer opined that plaintiff needed a cane to ambulate long distances and that plaintiff suffered chronic severe back pain. AT 95-97. Dr. Farshad's opinion was that plaintiff could not lift or carry even five pounds. AT 193. The ALJ rejected these opinions as inconsistent with the objective medical record and based on plaintiff's discredited subjective symptoms. AT 18. The ALJ instead relied on the opinions of the state agency physician who opined that plaintiff could perform light work. AT 184-191. The only objective evidence cited by plaintiff in support of the contention that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of the treating physicians is the MRI report, dated March 7, 2006. AT 199. That report, however, indicated no significant central canal or foraminal stenosis or evidence of neural compromise. Id. In addition, the ALJ correctly noted that Dr. Kiekhaeffer found normal reflexes and motor strength and that Dr. Farshad's opinions were based on plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain and limitations. AT 17-18, 95, 193, 197. Given the lack of objective findings, the ALJ appropriately concluded that the opinions of Drs. Kiekhaeffer and Farshad were based on plaintiff's subjective complaints which, as discussed below, the ALJ properly found not totally credible. The ALJ properly rejected opinions premised on plaintiff's properly discredited subjective complaints. See Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001).
Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the testimony of plaintiff's widow, who testified at the hearing because plaintiff was deceased. AT 312-326. The ALJ determines whether a disability applicant is credible, and the court defers to the ALJ's discretion if the ALJ used the proper process and provided proper reasons. See, e.g., Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 522 (9th Cir. 1995). If credibility is critical, the ALJ must make an explicit credibility finding. Albalos v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 871, 873-74 (9th Cir. 1990); Rashad v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1229, 1231 (9th Cir. 1990) (requiring explicit credibility finding to be supported by "a specific, cogent reason for the disbelief").
In evaluating whether subjective complaints are credible, the ALJ should first consider objective medical evidence and then consider other factors. Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc). If there is objective medical evidence of an impairment, the ALJ then may consider the nature of the symptoms alleged, including aggravating factors, medication, treatment and functional restrictions. See id. at 345-47. The ALJ also may consider:
(1) the applicant's reputation for truthfulness, prior inconsistent statements or other inconsistent testimony, (2) unexplained or inadequately explained failure to seek treatment or to follow a prescribed course of treatment, and (3) the applicant's daily activities. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996); see generally SSR 96-7P, 61 FR 34483-01; SSR 95-5P, 60 FR 55406-01; SSR 88-13. Work records, physician and third party testimony about nature, severity and effect of symptoms, and inconsistencies between testimony and conduct also may be relevant. Light v. Social Security Administration, 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997). A failure to seek treatment for an allegedly debilitating medical problem may be a valid consideration by the ALJ in determining whether the alleged associated pain is not a significant non-exertional impairment. See Flatten v. Secretary of HHS, 44 F.3d 1453, 1464 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ may rely, in part, on his or her own observations, see Quang Van Han v. Bowen, 882 F.2d 1453, 1458 (9th Cir. 1989), which cannot substitute for medical diagnosis. Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 177 n.6 (9th Cir. 1990). "Without affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the Commissioner's reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony must be clear and convincing." Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999).
In rejecting the testimony of plaintiff's widow that plaintiff suffered from disabling pain, the ALJ considered the limited and conservative treatment given plaintiff as inconsistent with his allegations of severe symptoms. AT 18, 98-183, 206-309.*fn3 The ALJ also noted that plaintiff exacerbated his back pain with certain physical activities, but that the pain resolved. AT 18, 122, 128, 156, 277. The ALJ also considered entries in the medical records indicating that plaintiff continued to work as a truck driver/fork lift operator/steel fabricator after the alleged date of onset of disability of November 1, 2004. AT 18, 48, 128, 132.The factors considered by the ALJ all were valid and supported by the record. The ALJ's credibility determination was based on permissible grounds and will not be disturbed.
The ALJ's decision is fully supported by substantial evidence in the record and based on the proper legal standards. Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY RECOMMENDED that:
1. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or remand be denied, and
2. The Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment be granted.
These findings and recommendations are submitted to the United States District Judge assigned to the case, pursuant to the provisions of Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l). Within ten days after being served with these findings and recommendations, any party may file written objections with the court and serve a copy on all parties. Such a document should be captioned "Objections to Magistrate Judge's Findings and Recommendations." Any reply to the objections shall be served and filed within ten days after service of the objections. The parties are advised that failure to file objections within the specified time may waive the right to appeal the District Court's order. Martinez v. Ylst, 951 F.2d 1153 (9th Cir. 1991).