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Stewart v. Astrue

November 3, 2009

MARTHA STEWART, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Oswald Parada United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION; ORDER

The Court*fn1 now rules as follows with respect to the disputed issues listed in the Joint Stipulation ("JS").*fn2

I. DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the disputed issues which Plaintiff raises as the grounds for reversal and/or remand are as follows:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered the treating physician's opinion;

2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility;

3. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the lay witness testimony;*fn3 and

4. Whether the ALJ posed a complete hypothetical to the vocational expert ("VE").

(JS at 4.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla" but less than a preponderance. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed. 2d 842 (1971); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 575-76 (9th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (citation omitted). The Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 529-30 (9th Cir. 1986). Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1452 (9th Cir. 1984).

III. DISCUSSION

A. The ALJ Properly Considered the Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erroneously rejected the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Krishna Murthy. (JS at 4-8.) Pursuant to the Stipulation for Order of Remand, the parties agreed the ALJ would give consideration to the opinion of Dr. Murthy. (Id. at 4, Ex. A; Administrative Record ("AR") at 383-84.) Plaintiff contends that while the ALJ cited to Dr. Murthy's opinion, the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons based on substantial evidence for rejecting the opinion. (JS at 5.)

1. Applicable Law

It is well-established in the Ninth Circuit that a treating physician's opinions are entitled to special weight, because a treating physician is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 602 (9th Cir. 1989). "The treating physician's opinion is not, however, necessarily conclusive as to either a physical condition or the ultimate issue of disability." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). The weight given a treating physician's opinion depends on whether it is supported by sufficient medical data and is consistent with other evidence in the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). If the treating physician's opinion is uncontroverted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for "clear and convincing" reasons. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995); Baxter v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1391, 1396 (9th Cir. 1991). If the treating physician's opinion is controverted, it may be rejected only if the ALJ makes findings setting forth specific and legitimate reasons that are based on the substantial evidence of record. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751; Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 647 (9th Cir. 1987).

However, the Ninth Circuit also has held that "[t]he ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957; see also Matney ex rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). A treating or examining physician's opinion based on the plaintiff's own complaints may be disregarded if the plaintiff's complaints have been properly discounted. Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999); see also Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995). Additionally, "[w]here the opinion of the claimant's treating physician is contradicted, and the opinion of a nontreating source is based on independent clinical findings that differ from those of the treating physician, the opinion of the nontreating source may itself be substantial evidence; it is then solely the province of the ALJ to resolve the conflict." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1041; Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751; Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 849 (9th Cir. 1985).

2. Analysis

Here, the ALJ considered Dr. Murthy's opinion, determined it was not entitled to controlling weight, and provided specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion. (AR at 306, 308-12.)

The ALJ found that Dr. Murthy's reports were inconsistent. (Id. at 308.) Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion that the reports were inconsistent because they reflected different time periods, the reports were internally inconsistent. On December 17, 2003, Dr. Murthy opined that Plaintiff was not able to work; on the same form, Dr. Murthy indicated that Plaintiff has no limitations that affect her ability to work. (Id. 255, 308.) On two"Mental Status Review" forms, one dated November 1, 2003, and the other undated, Dr. Murthy indicated that Plaintiff has slight to no mental limitations; on the other form, Dr. Murthy indicated that Plaintiff has slight to moderate limitations. (Id. 165, 167, 308.) Similarly, in two undated "Residual Psychiatric Disability" forms, Dr. Murthy indicated that Plaintiff has slight to no limitations on one form, and on the other, he indicated that Plaintiff has slight to moderate limitations. (Id. at 164, 166, 308.) In another "Residual Psychiatric Disability" form dated November 11, 2006, Dr. Murthy indicate that Plaintiff is severely limited in her ability to understand, carry out, and remember instructions, but was only moderately limited in performing complex tasks. (Id. at 308, 390.) It is also notable that Dr. Murthy provided no narrative explanation for his conclusions regarding Plaintiff's mental capacity. (Id. at 164-67, 390-91.) Based on the inconsistences of Dr. Murthy's opinion and the lack of explanation for his conclusions, Dr. Murthy's opinion is not entitled to great deference. Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 253 (9th Cir. 1996) (ALJ properly rejected doctor's opinion because they were check-off reports that did not contain any explanation of the bases of their conclusions); see also Morgan, 169 F.3d at 602.

As to Dr. Murthy's treatment records, the ALJ found the records did not substantiate any disabling mental ...


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