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Sanchez v. Astrue

April 6, 2010

ERLINDA L. SANCHEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stephen J. Hillman United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION

I. Introduction

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the undersigned. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. § 45(g), which authorizes this Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the record before the Commissioner. The plaintiff and defendant have filed their pleadings and the defendant has filed a certified transcript of the record ("AR"). After reviewing the matter, this Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

II. Proceedings

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on April 5, 2004, alleging an onset of disability on that date.*fn1 An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied plaintiff's application in a written decision dated January 17, 2006*fn2 ("2006 ALJ Decision"). (AR 43-51). Plaintiff sought review of the 2006 ALJ Decision and this Court affirmed the denial of benefits in an order entered on November 27, 2007.*fn3

Plaintiff's most recent filing for SSI benefits was on February 9, 2006, alleging disability beginning in 1996. On February 6, 2008, an ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("2008 ALJ Decision"). (AR 8-16). Following the Appeals Council's denial of plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff again filed an action in this Court.

Plaintiff makes six challenges to the 2008 ALJ Decision denying benefits. Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in (1) failing to properly consider the treating psychiatrist's opinion; (2) failing to properly consider the consultative examiner's opinion; (3) failing to consider the State Agency's findings; (4) failing to comply with Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7p regarding the type, dosage, effectiveness and side effects of the plaintiff's medications; (5) failing to properly consider the plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (6) failing to pose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert ("VE").

Each of plaintiff's contentions will be addressed in turn.

ISSUE No. 1

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinions of plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Nguyen. Defendant maintains that Dr. Nguyen's opinions were neither relevant nor legally persuasive, thus the ALJ did not have to give reasons for rejecting them.

The ALJ is to accord the greatest weight to a treating physician's medical opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Even where a treating psychiatrist's opinion is contradicted, the ALJ must provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting that opinion, supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). However, the ALJ does not have to discuss all evidence presented. He is only required to explain why significant probative evidence has been rejected. See Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984).

In 2000 Dr. Nguyen diagnosed plaintiff with a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") rating of 45 (AR 301) and a GAF rating of 48 in 2003. (AR 284). These scores indicate that plaintiff has serious impairment in social or occupational functioning. In assessing the plaintiff's RFC the ALJ concluded, however, that plaintiff had only mild mental limitations relying on the psychological consultative examination of Dr. Smith who assessed a GAF score of 62 in 2006. (AR 14).

The fact that the ALJ did not reference plaintiff's GAF scores from 2000 and 2003 when assessing her RFC does not constitute a reversible error because they are not considered significant probative evidence. See Howard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 241 (9th Cir. 2002) (finding that GAF scores are not "essential" to the RFC's accuracy). Therefore, the ALJ was not required to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting Dr. Nguyen's opinions regarding plaintiff's GAF ratings. See Id. ("[T]he ALJ's failure to reference the GAF score in the RFC, standing alone, does not make the RFC inaccurate.").

Moreover, the GAF scores at issue here were not evidence of "changed circumstances;" therefore, plaintiff did not meet her burden of overcoming the presumption of continuing non-disability.

The principles of res judicata apply to administrative decisions, although the doctrine is applied less rigidly to administrative proceedings than to judicial ones. See Lyle v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 700 F.2d 566, 568 n. 2 (9th Cir. 1983). Thus, an ALJ's findings concerning the claimant's RFC, education, and work experience are entitled to some consideration in subsequent proceedings. See Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691, 694 (9th Cir. 1988). However, a prior decision that finds a claimant capable of a certain RFC creates a presumption that the claimant continues to be able to work at that level, the presumption of continuing non-disability. See Id. at 693. Plaintiff has the burden of proving "changed circumstances" indicating greater ...


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