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Chalee Reid v. Michael J. Astrue

January 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Chalee Reid ("Plaintiff") seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision reversed, and this action should be remanded for further proceedings.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on January 19, 1955. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 121). She has relevant work experience as an insurance adjuster and office clerk. (AR at 35-36).

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on January 23, 2007, alleging that she has been disabled since October 2, 2005, due to chronic migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, back and neck injuries, extreme fatigue, and radiating muscle pain. (AR at 132). The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration. (AR at 30, 76-79, 83-88).

An administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Mary L. Everstine ("the ALJ") on April 29, 2009. (AR at 52-73). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. (AR at 55-67). A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (AR at 66-72). The ALJ issued a decision on November 4, 2008, denying Plaintiff's application. (AR at 30-36). The ALJ found that Plaintiff: (1) has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of disability through her date last insured of September 30, 2008, (step 1); (2) suffers from the severe impairments of fibromyalgia and migraine headaches (step 2); (3) does not have any impairments that meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment (step 3); (4) has a "prophylactic" residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, limited by a sit/stand option and an ability to lift and carry no more than five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally; and (5) is able to perform her past relevant work as an insurance adjuster and office clerk (step 4). (AR at 32-33, 35-36). The Appeals Council denied review on May 12, 2010. (AR at 1-3).

Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review on June 29, 2010. The parties filed a joint statement of disputed claims on December 16, 2010. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to the opinion of her treating physician and to her subjective symptom testimony. Plaintiff seeks remand for payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stipulation at 22). The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stipulation at 23).

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's or ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court "must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-721.


A. Plaintiff's Treating Physician's Opinion

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of her treating physician, Logan Bundy, M.D., who opined that Plaintiff was permanently disabled and unable to perform full-time, competitive work. (AR at 227, 269).

The Commissioner is directed to weigh medical opinions based in part on their source, specifically, whether proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual, than the opinion of a non-treating professional. See id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner must also consider whether a medical opinion is supported by clinical findings and is contradicted by other medical evidence of record. The Commissioner may reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for "clear and convincing" reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected only for "specific and legitimate" reasons supported by substantial evidence. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. If a treating professional's opinion is contradicted by an examining professional's opinion, which is supported by different independent clinical findings, the Commissioner may resolve the conflict by relying on the latter. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 ...

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