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Payne v. Astrue

November 8, 2010


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 disability insurance benefits and 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

The parties are familiar with the procedural facts, which are summarized in the Joint Stipulation. [See JS 2]. In a written hearing decision that constitutes the Commissioner's final decision in this matter, an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of lumbar strain, ankle strain, mood disorder, and mixed personality with borderline and narcissistic personality features. The ALJ found that retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work with occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, and that she is limited to simple, repetitive tasks. [JS 3; Administrative Record ("AR") 161]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled because her RFC did not preclude her from performing jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy. [JS 2; AR 161-162].

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. Soc. 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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)).


Examining physician's opinion Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed properly to consider the opinion of the Commissioner's consultative examining physician, board-certified psychiatrist Steven Simonian, M.D. [See JS 4-18].

Dr. Simonian conducted a complete psychiatric evaluation of plaintiff in May 2005 and again in December 2005. [AR 298-302, 375-379]. Plaintiff was 28 years old at the time of both evaluations. [AR 298, 375]. During the May 2005 evaluation, Dr. Simonian elicited a history and conducted a mental status examination. [AR 298-302]. His examination report includes the following observations and findings.

Plaintiff was not a good historian. [AR 298]. She said that she was living in a homeless shelter in Palmdale. She received general relief. She reported that she stopped working in a warehouse in Long Beach, where she used to live, because she was constantly anxious. She heard voices and thought others were talking about her. She subsequently began seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication. Plaintiff was taking Risperdal 4 milligrams and Lexapro, and she said that the voices seemed to have stopped. [AR 298].

Plaintiff attended school up to the tenth grade. She was unmarried and did not have children. She denied a history of alcohol abuse or substance abuse. [AR 299]. She said that she did not drive and did not have friends. [AR 301]. Her father was dead, she had a brother, and she did not know her mother's whereabouts. [AR 299].

On mental status examination, plaintiff was alert and oriented times three. She was shabbily dressed; her clothes were torn and worn out. [AR 300, 301]. Her hygiene, however, was good. [AR 300]. She had no major speech disorder. Her thought process was somewhat tangential. It was difficult to obtain a chronological history of her present illness. Plaintiff said that she become suspicious around people. She felt that they were accusing her of being a lesbian or were ordering her to touch herself, but she said that the voices had stopped since she started taking medication. Plaintiff denied suicidal or homicidal ideation. Her affect was constricted, and her mood was rather guarded. She was tearful at times during the interview. Her intellectual functioning and memory for recent and remote events were intact and average. Her ability to perform simple calculations was poor, and her general fund of knowledge was below average. Judgment was poor. [AR 300].

Dr. Simonian's diagnoses were "mood disorder NOS with psychotic features in partial remission," and "[r]ule out schizoaffective disorder." [AR 301]. Dr. Simonian assessed plaintiff's work-related functional abilities as follows. Plaintiff was not limited in the ability to remember, understand, and carry out simple one- or two-step job instructions and to maintain concentration and attention for a period of time. [AR 301]. Plaintiff was moderately limited in the ability to remember, understand, and carry out complex instructions; relate and interact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public; associate with day-to-day work activity, including attendance and safety; adapt to the stresses common to a normal work environment; maintain regular attendance in the workplace; perform work activities on a consistent basis; and perform work activities without special or additional supervision. [AR 301]. Dr. Simonian opined that plaintiff was able to handle her own financial affairs. [AR 302].

During his December 2005 examination, Dr. Simonian again obtained a history and conducted a mental status examination. He also reviewed plaintiff's responses to a questionnaire that she completed in his office with the assistance of office staff. Plaintiff answered most questions "I don't know" or "I don't remember, " so Dr. Simonian relied in part on the history given during her prior examination. [AR 375]. He ...

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