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Stephen Prince v. Michael J. Astrue

August 1, 2012

STEPHEN PRINCE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Stephen David Prince seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and this action is remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on January 13, 1956. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 14.) He has work experience as a detailer, firefighter, maintenance worker, roustabout, construction laborer, carpet cleaner, mechanical technician, and auto body repairer. (AR at 47.)

Plaintiff filed his applications for benefits on January 13, 2009, alleging disability beginning November 10, 2007, due to an injured left shoulder and arthritis in the neck and spine. (AR at 10, 56.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially on June 15, 2009, and upon reconsideration on October 1, 2009. (AR at 10.)

A video-conferenced administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dale A. Garwal on December 10, 2010. (AR at 10.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). (AR at 10.) On January 7, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application. (AR at 10-15.) The ALJ determined that although Plaintiff suffers from "chronic degenerative disc disease" and "cervical spine with radiculopathy," he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work activity. (AR at 13.) Specially, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can: "sit 6 hours of an 8 hour day; stand 6 hours of an 8 hour day; lift 10 pounds frequently, 20 pounds occasionally; occasionally bend or stoop; and occasionally use dominant left upper extremity to perform overhead work." (AR at 13.) The ALJ found that while Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. (AR at 14.) The Appeals Council denied review on September 17, 2011. (AR at 1.)

Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review, and the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues on July 11, 2012. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in five respects: (1) he improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; (2) his RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence; (3) he improperly assessed Plaintiff's credibility; (4) he failed to properly develop the record by pursuing all relevant evidence; and (5) he failed to properly inquire into conflicts between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (the "DOT"). (AR at 3-4.) Plaintiff seeks remand for the payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 40-41.) Defendant requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed or, if the Court finds that the ALJ committed reversible error, that the Court remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 41.)

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 decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1990); 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 v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. 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 support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. DISCUSSION

A. The ALJ Failed to Give Appropriate Weight to the Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the work-related limitations assessed by Bala Bhat, M.D., Plaintiff's treating physician, in finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Joint Stip. at 4-8). Dr. Bhat saw Plaintiff nine times between January 3, 2008 and July 23, 2010, mostly for his neck and left shoulder pain (AR at 187-217). Dr. Bhat found that Plaintiff would be unable to do even light or sedentary work, including watching video screen monitors, as turning his neck and prolonged flexion and extension positions cause him severe pain. (AR at 271.) He also found that Plaintiff would only be able to stand/walk for up to two hours, and to sit between two and four hours, in an eight hour workday. (AR at 248.) He noted that Plaintiff is on chronic pain medications that are only of very little help to him. (AR at 271.)

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). Similarly, more weight is generally given to the opinion of a source who has examined the patient than someone who has not done so. 20 CFR § 404.1527(d)(1).

The Commissioner must also consider whether a medical opinion is supported by clinical findings and is contradicted by other medical evidence in the 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 (9th Cir. 1995); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007) (ALJ may reject opinion of treating physician in favor of examining physician whose opinion rests on independent clinical findings).

The ALJ rejected Dr. Bhat's opinion as to Plaintiff's limitations, but failed to state adequate reasons for doing so. (AR at 14.) First, the ALJ stated that the "extreme limitations" found by Dr. Bhat are not supported by the treatment records. In doing so, the ALJ noted that "there is no evidence of herniation, nerve compression or severe stenosis," and that Plaintiff "has not had surgery or injections." (AR at 13.) On the contrary, the medical record does contain such evidence. An MRI taken on February 4, 2009, showed that Plaintiff suffers from severe and moderate stenosis in several places on his spine. (AR at 179-80.) Additionally, Dr. Bhat states in a December 6, 2010 letter that Plaintiff was receiving pain injections from a pain specialist. (AR at 271.) Moreover, the treatment records reflect that Plaintiff consistently ...


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