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Armik Davoodianes v. Michael J. Astrue

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


June 22, 2012

ARMIK DAVOODIANES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alicia G. Rosenberg United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Armik Davoodianes filed a complaint on July 1, 2011. (Dkt. No. 3.) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to proceed before the magistrate judge on July 18 and July 29, 2011. (Dkt. Nos. 7, 9.) On March 7, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") that addressed the disputed issues. The court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

Having reviewed the entire file, the court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On March 13, 2008, Davoodianes filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits, alleging an onset date of January 15, 2005. Administrative Record ("AR") 30, 152-61. The applications were denied. AR 30. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on December 17, 2009, at which Davoodianes and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. AR 54-94. On January 12, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. AR 27-44. On April 19, 2011, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-4.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citation and quotation marks omitted); Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Disability

A person is disabled and eligible for benefits, "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22, 124 S. Ct. 376, 157 L. Ed. 2d 333 (2003).

B. The ALJ's Findings

The ALJ found that Davoodianes had the severe impairment of "grade 3 hepatitis B." AR 33. He did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 34.

Davoodianes had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b)*fn1 and 416.967(b)*fn2 except that "he can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds and he would need to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat." AR 35. Davoodianes could not perform any past relevant work. AR 42. However, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he could perform, such as a cleaner, housekeeper and laundry worker. AR 42-43.

C. Medical Expert To Determine Medical Equivalency

Davoodianes argues the ALJ erred in failing to utilize a medical expert to determine whether his liver condition met or equaled a listing.

The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that his impairments are equivalent to a listed impairment that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141, 146 n.5, 107 S. Ct. 2287, 96 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1987). "If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled." Id. at 141; Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(4)(iii), 416.920(4)(iii).

"For a claimant to show that h[is] impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530, 110 S. Ct. 885, 107 L. Ed. 2d 967 (1990) (emphasis in original). "To equal a listed impairment, a claimant must establish symptoms, signs and laboratory findings 'at least equal in severity and duration' to the characteristics of a relevant listed impairment, or, if a claimant's impairment is not listed, then to the listed impairment 'most like' the claimant's impairment." Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099 (emphasis in original); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526. "'Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings.' A generalized assertion of functional problems is not enough to establish disability at step three." Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100 (citation omitted).

Davoodianes makes no showing that he meets or equals a listing. Instead, he argues the ALJ failed to use a medical expert in violation of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-6p. Specifically, Davoodianes argues the state agency medical consultant did not sign the Disability Determination and Transmittal forms. AR 95-96.

The ALJ "is responsible for deciding the ultimate legal question whether a listing is met or equaled." SSR 96-6p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 3, *7-*8. When an ALJ determines that an individual's impairment is not equivalent to any listing, the ALJ may satisfy the duty to receive expert opinion evidence into the record by obtaining the signature of a State medical consultant on an SSA-831-U5, SSA-832-U5 or SSA-833-U5 form, or by "[o]ther documents, including the Psychiatric Review Technique Form and various other documents on which medical and psychological consultants may record their findings." Id. at *8-*9 (July 2, 1996).

The ALJ discussed the evidence which formed the basis of his finding at step three of the sequential analysis. AR 34. The ALJ cited the opinion of the state agency medical consultant*fn3 in Exhibit 1F and the absence of medical findings in the record required for listing 5.05 (chronic liver disease) or any other listed impairment.*fn4 Id.

The state agency medical consultant's opinion by Dr. Chambers in Exhibit 1F consists of a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment form dated April 24, 2008, with the attached request for medical advice. AR 415-24. Dr. Chambers found "Hx of Hep B, 2005 Labs: not listing level." AR 416. Dr. Chambers found that Davoodianes could lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit, stand and walk for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; and push or pull consistent with the lift/carry restriction. Id. Davoodianes could only occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, and should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat. AR 417, 419.

The Physical Residual Functional Capacity form used by Dr. Chambers is Form SSA-4734-BK, which is not one of the listed forms in SSR 96-6p. However, SSR 96-6p permits an ALJ to rely on "other documents," including "various other documents on which medical and psychological consultants may record their findings." SSR 96-6p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 3, at *8-*9. The Physical Residual Capacity form qualifies as a form on which a medical consultant may record his or her findings.

In reply, Davoodianes argues that Dr. Chambers "was simply trying to communicate that the sole medical evidence available to him at the time of his review . . . did not demonstrate a Listing-level impairment." JS at 6.

SSR 96-6p requires an ALJ to obtain an updated medical opinion from a medical expert "[w]hen additional medical evidence is received that in the opinion of the administrative law judge . . . may change the State agency medical or psychological consultant's finding that the impairment(s) is not equivalent in severity to any impairment in the Listing of Impairments." SSR 96-6p at *9-*10.

The ALJ found that "the record does not document medical findings that are equivalent in severity and duration to the criteria of any listed impairment." AR 34, 37-41; see also AR 41 ("laboratory studies do not show a progression of disease with increased serum total bilirubin, decreased serum albumin, increased INR levels or CLD scores to show end-stage liver disease"; "the records document the claimant has exhibited no manifestations of chronic liver disease such as jaundice, enlargement of the liver, ascites, hematemesis, hypoxemia, edema or altered mental status"). This finding is supported by substantial evidence, and Davoodianes does not even argue otherwise. See also Rivera v. Astrue, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21584, at *9-*10 (E.D. Wash. Feb. 21, 2012). Davoodianes has not shown the ALJ erred in failing to call a medical expert to testify whether his impairment met or equaled a listing.

D. Occupational Therapist And Kinesiologist's Opinions

Davoodianes argues the ALJ failed to apply the analysis required by SSR 06-03p to an occupational therapist's evaluation dated August 5, 2009.*fn5 AR 210-224.

The ALJ gave the evaluation "no substantial weight" because it did not come from an acceptable medical source,*fn6 was based "in large part on the claimant's subjective complaints" and was "inconsistent with the findings on examinations in the treating source records." AR 41.

Davoodianes does not dispute that an occupational therapist and kinesiologist are not acceptable medical sources. Such evidence may be used "to show the severity of your impairment(s) and how it affects your ability to work."

20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(d)-(e). However, such opinions do not receive the same deference as medical source opinions. See Gomez v. Chater, 74 F.3d 967, 970-71 (9th Cir. 1996) (opinions from "other sources" can be afforded "less weight than opinions from acceptable medical sources."). "The ALJ may discount testimony from these 'other sources' if the ALJ '"gives reasons germane to each witness for doing so."'" Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).

. Davoodianes argues the ALJ's finding that the evaluation was based "in large part" on his subjective complaints is not supported by substantial evidence. The evaluation concluded Davoodianes "is unable to sustain any substantial work activity at any physical demand level as defined by the Department of Labor." AR 224. The sections on environmental restrictions, pain profile*fn7 and non-exertional limitations*fn8 were based largely on subjective complaints. AR 213-14, 221. In terms of clinical findings, Davoodianes "demonstrated normal range of motion in all areas except for his neck, bilateral arms, mid-back, low back, bilateral hips and bilateral legs." AR 216. In those areas, however, the evaluation did not indicate deviations that were debilitating. Id. Manual muscle strength ranged from Grade 3 (defined as "fair" and indicating full range of motion against gravity) to Grade 5 (defined as "normal" and indicating full range of motion against maximum manual resistance). AR 216-17. Davoodianes stated he could lift only 20 pounds.*fn9 AR 35, 196. In the evaluation, Davoodianes was observed to lift and carry 15 pounds for 20 feet. AR 218. The sit, stand and walk section was based on subjective complaints except for observations that Davoodianes could walk one block, stand for 10-15 minutes, and sit for 30 minutes at a time.*fn10 AR 219.

Based on McCarron Dial testing, the evaluation concluded that Davoodianes was below average in fine motor coordination and gross motor skills. AR 221. Gross motor skills mostly relates to endurance for work. Id. "An overall fine motor score at <1st percentile="" would="" make="" it="" very="" difficult="" to="" work="" at="" a="" job="" where="" hand/arm="" use="" is="" an="" essential="" function.="" his="" fine="" motor="" speed="" and="" accuracy="" would="" not="" be="" consistent="" with="" assembly="">*fn11 Id.

Davoodianes argues the ALJ fails to point to evidence in the record inconsistent with the evaluation's clinical findings. However, the ALJ carefully reviewed the medical records for the period 2005-2009. The ALJ cited medical records indicating that, in August 2005, Davoodianes denied pain in the upper and lower extremities, denied exertional symptoms, and had no decreased exercise tolerance. AR 37-38, 486. The motor examination was 5/5 in the upper and lower extremities. AR 37-38, 487. The ALJ also cited medical records in 2006 and 2007. AR 37-38. In October 2006, Davoodianes reported low back pain and urinary pain that "comes and goes." AR 512, 574 (mild and intermittent right upper quadrant pain), 575 (6/06, mild and intermittent left upper quadrant pain). In February 2007, Davoodianes had normal strength and tone in all extremities, normal range of motion, and normal walk. AR 509. In September 2007, Davoodianes had no neck pain and normal range of motion; no back pain or tenderness; normal range of motion in upper and lower extremities; normal gait and no focal motor deficits. AR 571. The ALJ cited medical records from 2008. AR 38-39. In February 2008, Davoodianes reported that he walked regularly and had good exercise tolerance.*fn12 AR 38, 623. In March 2008, Davoodianes denied any overt complaints. AR 38, 621. The physician noted that Davoodianes was working on disability, "but I do not know if he would qualify for either Medicaid or any kind of disability at this point in time." AR 38, 622. In June 2008, Davoodianes reported chronic back pain that keeps him from working. He requested that the physician fill out disability paperwork, but the physician declined to do so and found no pain or tenderness in the back area. AR 38, 617-18. In October 2008, Davoodianes had no complaints, with earlier reflux symptoms having resolved. He had no myalgias, no pain with palpitation, and full strength 5/5 in the upper and lower extremities. AR 39, 611. In March 2009, Davoodianes again reported chronic back pain and requested that the physician fill out disability paperwork. The physician's examination was essentially normal. AR 39, 607. In October 2009, Davoodianes complained only of intermittent and infrequent left flank pain with occasional radiation down to his left groin. AR 39, 649. That could not be elicited on examination. AR 650. Davoodianes was "overall doing well," "in no apparent distress" and "pleasant and interactive." AR 649. He had very mild tenderness bilaterally, with no significant tenderness of his paraspinous musculature and no midline L-spine tenderness. AR 650. His neurological examination was nonfocal. Id.

It is the ALJ's province to resolve a conflict in the medical evidence. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523. The ALJ gave legitimate reasons for discounting the occupational therapist's report. See Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111.

IV.

ORDER IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Clerk of the Court serve copies of this Order and the Judgment herein on all parties or their counsel.


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