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 will deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or remand and grant the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
In a decision dated July 25, 2007, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled.*fn1
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 degenerative disc diseasebut this impairment does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment; plaintiff can perform light work with restrictions on climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolding; plaintiff can perform his past relevant work as a contractor trainer; and plaintiff is not disabled. Administrative Transcript ("AT") 15-20. Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly weighed the record medical opinions, improperly discredited plaintiff, incorrectly assessed his residual functional capacity, and improperly relied on the testimony of a vocational expert.
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 nondisability, 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).
Plaintiff contends the ALJ accorded improper weight to the record medical opinions. 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.
Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Stark, opined in a physical residual functional capacity evaluation, dated September 16, 2006, that plaintiff could sit four hours, stand/walk three hours, would have no difficulty performing work activities while seated at a desk or bench, and could lift six to twenty pounds occasionally.*fn2 AT 200-203. The ALJ accorded significant, rather than controlling weight to Dr. Stark's assessment on the basis that objective clinical and imaging evidence did not support the degree of limitations on standing, walking and sitting. AT 19.
Dr. Stark's progress reports and related medical records for the relevant time period*fn3 indicate treatment for low back pain with occasional flare ups; examinations early on also revealed some positive straight leg raising in January 2005 resolving to negative straight leg raising by February 2005. AT 235-254. Plaintiff generally was found to be in no acute distress. Id. MRIs performed in June 2002 and March 2005 revealed progression from mild degenerative changes in 2002 to suspected stenosis of the left L4-5 neural foramen in 2005. AT 128, 176. While this radiologic evidence indicates a deteriorating spinal condition, objective clinical observations made after the 2005 MRI indicate minimal neurologic involvement. AT 150, 161, 182, 183, 232. The state agency physicians also considered the 2005 MRI in conjunction with the clinical findings and concluded that plaintiff could perform light work. AT 189, 195. Surgery was discussed as one of three options by Dr. Engel,*fn4 but the neurosurgeon to whom plaintiff was referred for a surgical consult found plaintiff was not a surgical candidate. AT 151, 232. With respect to Dr. Clifford's report, prepared for workers' compensation, the court finds no error in the ALJ's characterization of this report and the ALJ's reliance thereon. AT 18, 177-187. In light of the entire record, the court finds no error in the weight accorded the record medical opinions.
Plaintiff also challenges the ALJ's credibility finding. 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 ...