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Lea Ann Lundgren v. Michael J. Astrue

September 20, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Larry Alan Burns United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Lundgren challenges the denial of her claim for disability benefits under the Social Security Act. The challenge was referred to Magistrate Judge Dembin for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, after which Lundgren and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Judge Dembin issued his R&R on August 2, 2012, finding for the Commissioner. Lundgren then filed an objection to the R&R.

The Court reviews an R&R on dispositive motions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Rule 72(b) "makes it clear that the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise." United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc).

II. Legal Standards

To qualify for disability benefits, Lundgren has to establish that she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). She will be considered disabled only if her physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that she is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which she lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for her, or whether she would be hired if she applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).Lundgren bears the burden of proof that she is in fact disabled. Valentine v. Commissioner, Social Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The Commissioner bears the burden, though, of showing that Lundgren is still able to work. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007).

There is a five-step, sequential evaluation process for determining whether Lundgren is disabled. First, she must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, her alleged impairment must be sufficiently severe to limit her ability to work. Third, her impairment must meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404. Fourth, she cannot possess the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past work. Fifth, her RFC, considered with her age, education, and work experience, must be insufficient to allow her to adjust to other work in the national economy. Stout v. Commissioner, Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006).

The Court will uphold a denial of benefits so long as it is supported by substantial evidence and not based on legal error. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. It is not a preponderance of the evidence, but it is more than a mere scintilla. Sandqathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). "Where the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision," the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.

III. Discussion

Lundgren initially challenged the ALJ's denial of disability benefits on two grounds. First, she argued that he improperly rejected the opinions of her treating physicians.

(Lundgren MSJ at 9.) Second, she took issue with the ALJ's finding that her own testimony was not credible, or at least of diminished credibility. (Id. at 11.) The R&R rejects both arguments, and in her objection to the R&R she pursues only the first. Not only that, but she only pursues the first with respect to one of the three treating physicians, which means that the Court considers only a rather narrow objection to the R&R.

A. Factual and Legal Background

It is three opinions that Lundgren initially faulted the ALJ for overlooking-those of Dr. Rome, Nurse Siridakis, and Counselor O'Conner. The ALJ looked at each and determined not to give them significant weight. The R&R finds no problem with this, and now Lundgren challenges only the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Rome's opinion.

The law with respect to the opinions of treating physicians is very straightforward. As a general rule, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to substantial weight. Bray v. Commissioner, Social Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th Cir. 2009). An ALJ needn't accept a treating physician's opinion, however, if it "is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). Moreover, when evidence in the record contradicts the opinion of a treating physician, the ALJ must present specific and legitimate reasons for discounting that opinion, and those reasons must be supported by substantial evidence. Bray, 554 F.3d at 1228. ...

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