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Matthew Mcnearney v. Michael J. Astrue

October 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff appeals the decision of Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). He claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he rejected the opinions of the examining and reviewing psychiatrists and when he relied exclusively on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (hereinafter the "Grids") to conclude that Plaintiff was disabled. For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further proceedings.


Plaintiff applied for SSI on June 19, 2008, alleging that he had been unable to work since June 6, 2008, because he suffered from bipolar disorder. (Administrative Record ("AR") 96-99, 122-27.) The Agency denied his application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 42-43, 47-58.) He then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 61, 69-74.) Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 21-41.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 9-16.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-5.) He then commenced the instant action in this court.


A. The ALJ's Rejection of the Examining Psychiatrist's Opinion Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of the examining psychiatrist. (Joint Stip. at 3-17.) For the following reasons, the Court agrees.

An ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting an uncontradicted opinion of an examining doctor. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). Where the examining doctor's opinion is contradicted, the ALJ must provide specific and legitimate reasons backed by substantial evidence for discounting it. Id.

Psychiatrist John S. Woodard examined Plaintiff at the behest of the Agency and concluded that Plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder and would be somewhat limited in his ability to function in the workplace. (AR 197-200.) For example, Dr. Woodard believed that Plaintiff would be moderately limited in his ability to interact with the public and to complete a workweek. (AR 199.) He also believed that Plaintiff was slightly to moderately limited in his ability to interact with supervisors and co-workers. (AR 199.) Still, Dr. Woodard thought that Plaintiff was capable of performing simple, repetitive tasks. (AR 199.)

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform simple, repetitive tasks equating to unskilled work. (AR 13.) Applying the Grids, he determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 15.)

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred when he "silent[ly] disregard[ed]" Dr. Woodard's opinion that Plaintiff suffered from psychiatric impairments that interfered with his ability to work. (Joint Stip. at 5.) The Agency disagrees. It argues that Plaintiff has simply misunderstood what the ALJ did. In the Agency's view, the ALJ did not reject Dr. Woodard's opinion at all, rather, he translated Dr. Woodard's medical findings into a residual functional capacity finding. (Joint Stip. at 10.)

The Court rejects both arguments. The ALJ did not accept Dr. Woodard's findings and there was nothing quiet about the way that he rejected them. He wrote, "I find [Dr. Woodard's] assessment to be not supported by the evidence of record as a whole to the extent that it indicates an inability to sustain simple, repetitive tasks equating to unskilled work." (AR 14.) Thus, in the Court's view, there is nothing mysterious about what the ALJ did. The issues that remain are whether the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Woodard's findings and, if so, whether the error was harmless. This analysis turns on whether Dr. Woodard's opinion was contradicted by another treating or examining doctor, since it is within this context that the ALJ's decision is assessed. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. The Court finds that Dr. Woodard's opinion was not contradicted by a treating or examining doctor's opinion. As such, for the ALJ to reject it, he had to provide clear and convincing reasons for doing so. Id. at 830.

The ALJ relied on two reasons for rejecting Dr. Woodard's findings. First, he noted that the treating sources did not allege greater limitations. (AR 14.) Second, he pointed out that none of the treating sources had found that Plaintiff was disabled. (AR 14.) For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that these reasons are not enough to uphold the ALJ's decision.

As to the ALJ's finding that the treating sources had not found greater limitations, the Court would agree that this is true. None of the doctors or psychologists who interacted with Plaintiff in a treating capacity found that he was limited beyond what the ALJ found. Though the treating psychologist who interviewed Plaintiff in April 2008 when he sought psychiatric care at the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health found that Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning was 50 (AR 190)---meaning that he was seriously impaired in occupational functioning, see Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (revised) at 34---she never opined that Plaintiff's limitations were greater than those assessed by the ALJ. Then again, she was never asked to opine about Plaintiff's limitations or to assess what his limitations were. Her role was merely to treat Plaintiff. And the chart notes that she filled out when she was treating him do not give any insight into what she perceived his functional capacity was. Thus, though the Court would agree that the treating physicians did not find that Plaintiff ...

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