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Shelton v. Astrue

May 24, 2010

CHRIS SHELTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR B. Kenton United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER (Social Security Case)

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the record before the Commissioner. The parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified Administrative Record ("AR").

Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered the evaluating physician's initial assessment; and

2. Whether the ALJ properly developed the record.

This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

I. THE ALJ PROPERLY EVALUATED PLAINTIFF'S MENTAL STATUS AND FUNCTIONAL LIMITATIONS

In Plaintiff's first issue, he asserts that the ALJ failed to properly consider the evaluation of his treating physician, Dr. Hernandez, of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, Compton Mental Health Unit. (JS at 3, et seq., AR at 299-310, hereinafter "Compton Mental Health.") Plaintiff notes his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, major depression, alcohol dependence, and a Global Assessment of Function ("GAF") score of 55. (JS at 3, citing AR at 307. Further, Plaintiff notes that the ALJ should have considered the "Adult Initial Assessment" of Compton Mental Health, which indicated, in part, that Plaintiff has a dysphoric and irritable mood with blunted affect, and exhibited command and persecutory auditory hallucinations, known to begin at age 13. Plaintiff was found to have impaired concentration and thought blocking, excessive worry, apathy, and displayed inappropriate crying. (AR 306.)

A. The ALJ's Decision

The ALJ summed up his analysis of Plaintiff's mental impairments in the following portion of his opinion:

"Regarding [Plaintiff's] mental impairments, about a year ago, as per [Plaintiff's] testimony and as evidenced by the record, [Plaintiff] was abusing drugs. The evidence of suicidal and homicidal ideation which led to [Plaintiff's] hospitalization due to psychotic symptoms occurred primarily because he was abusing drugs. Absent substance abuse and under treatment however, the record shows [Plaintiff] is stable and functional, with few if any restrictions. Indeed some treatment notes indicate no work restrictions were recommended, while others indicate [Plaintiff] was stable and doing well, without any medication side effects." (AR 15, exhibit citations omitted.)

Dr. Hernandez' report is dated April 19, 2005. (AR 307.) The ALJ relied upon evidence developed later in time. This included the report of consultative examining psychiatrist Dr. Yang (AR 275-78), and State Agency psychiatrist Dr. McDowell (AR 279-92). Dr. Yang performed a consultative examination on August 29, 2007, in which he diagnosed Plaintiff with polysubstance dependence and anxiety disorder. (AR 277.) There was no evidence of any cognitive deficits, perceptual disturbances, or delusional disorders. (AR 278.) Plaintiff was able to focus his attention adequately. (AR 278.) It was noted that Plaintiff indicated he has had problems with an addiction to alcohol, cocaine, PCP and marijuana, but that he has been "clean" for over eight months, having attended a 12-step program. (AR 276.)

After reviewing the record, Dr. McDowell completed a Psychiatric Review Technique Form ("PRTF") on September 17, 2007. (AR 279-289.) This resulted in an assessment of only mild functional limitations in daily living and social functioning; moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and insufficient evidence of repeated episodes of decompensation. (AR 287.) The ALJ adopted Dr. McDowell's analysis regarding the extent of limitations in each of these four areas. (AR 12-13, see infra.) The ALJ noted that this residual mental functional capacity (see AR at 13, ¶ 4), was supported by Dr. Yang's consultative examination and opinion, and affirmed by two State Agency reviewing medical sources. The ALJ noted that he assigned the greatest weight to Dr. Yang's opinion, and the State Agency psychiatrists. (AR 16.)

The ALJ did acknowledge Plaintiff's treatment at the Compton Mental Health Center, by Dr. Hernandez. (See AR at 12, 15.) Plaintiff's specific complaint, however, is that the ALJ failed to provide specific ...


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