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Sellers v. Astrue

March 10, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: M. James Lorenz United States District Court Judge


Plaintiff Catherine Sellers, appearing through counsel, filed a civil complaint against defendant Michael Astrue challenging his denial of plaintiff's claim for Social Security benefits. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment in this action that were referred to United States Magistrate Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo for a Report and Recommendation ("Report") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Civil Local Rule 72.1(c)(1)(c). On February 9, 2010, the magistrate judge filed a Report to which the parties were given an opportunity to file objections to the Report. Defendant filed objections to the Report and plaintiff filed a reply to the objections.

The district court's role in reviewing a magistrate judge's report and recommendation is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Under this statute, the district court "shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report . . . to which objection is made," and "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." Id. Under this statute, "the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise." United States v. Reyna- , 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 124 S.Ct. 238 (2003); see Schmidt v. Johnstone, 263 F. Supp. 2d 1219, 1225-26 & n.5 (D. Ariz. 2003) (applying Reyna-Tapia's holding to a habeas corpus proceeding).

Here, the magistrate judge recommended granting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment finding the ALJ committed legal error by failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinions of plaintiff's treating physician and plaintiff's therapist. The magistrate further found that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. In recommending the matter be remanded for an award of benefits, the magistrate judge determined that the record was clear the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled if the rejected evidence was credited.

Procedural and Factual Background

The Report provides a thorough procedural and factual background which will not be repeated here.

Defendant's Objections

In objecting to the Report, defendant contends that the ALJ gave specific and legitimate reasons for discounting treating physician Dr. Alonso's opinion; the ALJ properly dismissed plaintiff's therapist as a lay witness whose opinion was not competent; and even if the Court finds error, the matter should be remanded for further agency proceedings rather than an award of benefits.

1. Dr. Alonso's Opinion

An ALJ can reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor if he provides clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial reasons for doing so. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). An ALJ can reject a contradicted treating or examining doctor's opinion only by "providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Id. "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the ALJ's] conclusion[,]" considering the record as a whole. Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, when evaluating conflicting medical opinions, the ALJ need not accept doctors' opinions that are brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings. Id.

From late 2005 through January 2008, Margarita Alonso, M.D., a psychiatrist, was plaintiff's treating physician with respect to plaintiff's various mental health disorders. Throughout her treatment of plaintiff, Dr. Alonso made notes and summaries indicating plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, and severe obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD") for which she prescribed Prozac and other psychiatric medications for plaintiff. In her treatment notes, Dr. Alonso also commented on plaintiff's marked limitations in activities of daily living, maintaining social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. Although plaintiff experienced times when she was more or less affected by her mental disorders, Dr. Alonso's treatment notes and comments provided consistent statements that plaintiff was severely impacted by her disorders.

The ALJ completely discounted Dr. Alonso's opinions finding that she failed to provide objective evidence to support her findings and plaintiff's noncompliance with taking some medications made Dr. Alonso's opinions as to plaintiff's functional limitation not credible.

a. Objective Evidence

In his decision, the ALJ noted "the record is absent objective evidence, specifically clinical signs and laboratory findings, progress notes, and treatment notes upon which to establish a severe impairment lasting or expected to last 12 continuous months." (Record at 17.) The ALJ apparently adopted the opinion of Dr. Bolter, a testifying medical expert, who insisted that Dr. Alonso's treatment records did not contain adequate mental status ...

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