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William Francis Klaus v. Michael J. Astrue

July 16, 2012

WILLIAM FRANCIS KLAUS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gregory G. Hollows United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplement Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"). For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied, defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment is granted, and judgment is entered for defendant.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, born September 30, 1952, applied on April 18, 2007 for DIB and SSI, alleging that he became disabled on March 9, 2006. (Tr. at 18, 61-64, 101-05, 106-10.) Plaintiff contended that he was unable to work primarily due to Hepatitis C and depression. (Tr. at 127, 313, 340.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 18, 61-64.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was conducted on December 8, 2008 in Stockton, California. (Tr. at 18, 77, 26-60.) David M. Dettmer, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also appeared at the hearing. (Tr. at 18, 26.)

Subsequently, in a decision dated March 30, 2009, ALJ Sandra K. Rogers determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 25.) The ALJ made the following findings:*fn1

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2011.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 9, 2006, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: status post left wrist fusion; history of hepatitis C, currently asymptomatic; migratory polyarthralgias; history of drug abuse in full sustained remission; and a depressive disorder, not otherwise specified (20 CFR 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq.).

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925 and 416.926).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work. Mentally, the claimant has no limitations in his ability to complete simple tasks and only moderate limitations in his ability to complete detailed and complex tasks (20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)).

6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a bottling line attendant or a sampler. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).

7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 9, 2006 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f)).

8. The claimant's substance abuse disorder is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability (20 CFR 404.1535 and 416.935).

(Tr. at 20-25.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on November 18, 2010. (Tr. at 1-5.)

ISSUES PRESENTED

Plaintiff's motion presents three issues for review: (1) whether the ALJ erred in failing to acknowledge a treating physician's opinion concerning plaintiff's left wrist motion restrictions; (2) whether the ALJ improperly evaluated opinion evidence concerning plaintiff's mental impairments; and (3) whether the ALJ erroneously found that plaintiff's hepatitis C was asymptomatic and therefore improperly discredited plaintiff's testimony.

LEGAL STANDARDS

The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir.1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). ANALYSIS

(1) Whether the ALJ erred in failing to acknowledge a treating physician's opinion concerning plaintiff's left wrist motion restrictions

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to address the opinion of plaintiff's former treating orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Craig Bottke, concerning plaintiff's left wrist motion restrictions.

The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, 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. Id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996).

To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) contradictory opinions are in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. An ALJ may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for "clear and convincing" reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for "specific and legitimate" reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. While a treating professional's opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by a supported examining professional's opinion (supported by different independent clinical findings), the ALJ may resolve the conflict. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)). The regulations require the ALJ to weigh the contradicted treating physician opinion, Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157,*fn2 except that the ALJ in any event need not give it any weight if it is conclusory and supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 ...


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