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Gonzales v. Astrue

November 5, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

Plaintiff, aged 25, filed an application for SSI benefits on October 13, 2005, alleging that he became disabled on May 1, 2005, due to depression with psychotic features. [JS 2; Administrative Record ("AR") 105]. In a written hearing decision dated August 31, 2007, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of a psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified ("NOS") and a personality disorder with schizophrenic features. [AR 11]. The ALJ further found that plaintiff's impairments left him with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") for work at any exertional level, with non-exertional impairments restricting him to simple, repetitive tasks that do not involve working with the public or around dangerous machinery, and require no safety operations or hypervigilance. [AR 12]. The ALJ found that plaintiff's RFC did not preclude him from performing his unskilled, light past work as a dog bather as he actually performed it. [AR 14]. Alternatively, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform unskilled jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy, such as the jobs of assembler and hand packager. [AR 14-15]. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. [JS 2; AR 1-5].

Standard of Review

The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)(internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Social Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Commr of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir.1999)).


Medical opinion evidence

State agency physicians

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed properly to consider a nonexamining state agency physician's findings that plaintiff has moderate work-related functional limitations. [See JS 3-7].

D. L. Williams, M.D., completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment form on November 30, 2005, indicating that plaintiff was not limited or not significantly limited in twelve of the twenty work-related functional abilities rated on the form, and was "moderately limited" in the remaining eight abilities, including, for example, the ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions. [AR 190-193]. The ALJ did not discuss that assessment; however, he summarized the findings made by Dr. Williams on a "Psychiatric Review Technique" ("PRT") form completed on the same date. [AR 14, 176-189]. On the PRT form, Dr. Williams found that plaintiff had a severe psychotic disorder with persistent delusions or hallucinations, but that his psychotic and depressive symptoms were improving steadily over time with medication. [AR14, 176, 178-179]. Dr. Williams concluded that plaintiff's impairment did not meet or equal a listed impairment because he had only a mild limitation in activities of daily living, a moderate limitation in maintaining social functioning, and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and no repeated episodes of decompensation. [AR 14, 186-187]. Remarking that "the alleged degree of functional limitation is not fully supported by the objective findings," Dr. Williams wrote that plaintiff appeared capable of performing nonpublic, simple, repetitive tasks. [AR 14, 193]. Nonexamining state agency psychiatrist, K.D. Gregg, M.D., affirmed Dr. Williams's opinion as written. [AR 194-195].

Where the opinion of a treating or examining physician is uncontroverted, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting it. If contradicted by that of another doctor, a treating or examining source opinion may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are based on substantial evidence in the record. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148-49 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-831 (9th Cir. 1995).

A nonexamining physician does not have the opportunity to conduct an independent examination and does not have a treatment relationship with the claimant, so a nonexamining source opinion ordinarily carries less weight than that of an examining or treating physician. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040-41 (9th Cir. 1995)(explaining that more weight is given to the opinions of treating and examining physicians because they have a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual). Standing alone, the opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining physician or a treating physician. Morgan, 169 F.3d at 602; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-831 (9th Cir. 1995). When supported by other evidence in the record, however, the opinion of a nonexamining physician may serve as substantial evidence. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1041; Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 752 (9th Cir. 1989).

Although the ALJ did not discuss the specific functional limitations reflected in Dr. Williams's mental RFC assessment form, he considered and adopted Dr. Williams's conclusion that, notwithstanding those functional limitations, plaintiff could perform simple, repetitive tasks that do not involve working with the public, provided his job did not require hypervigilance, safety operations, and working around dangerous machinery were not required. [AR 12]. ...

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