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Margaret Ann Gleason v. Michael J. Astrue

September 21, 2012


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


Plaintiff Margaret Ann Gleason seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born on July 14, 1971, and has a high school education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 20, 61.) She filed her application for SSI benefits on May 7, 2009, alleging disability beginning July 1, 2006, due to chronic pulmonary disease and mental disorders. (AR at 9, 61.)

Plaintiff's application was denied initially on September 10, 2009, and upon reconsideration on January 6, 2010. (AR at 9.) An administrative hearing was held on December 8, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Daniel G. Heely. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, as did a Vocational Expert ("VE"). (AR at 9.)

On January 18, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 9-21.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and depression. Nevertheless, he found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a wide range of medium work activity, except that she "is limited to work involving simple repetitive tasks, she can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, she cannot work with hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights, and cannot be exposed to concentrated fumes, dust and gases." (AR at 13.) The ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (AR at 20.) The Appeals Council denied review on March 14, 2012. (AR at 1.)

Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review, and on September 14, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in two respects: (1) he improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Wali; (2) his findings that Plaintiff could perform the jobs of kitchen helper and packer were inconsistent with the requirements of the jobs as determined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). (Joint Stip. at 2-3.) Plaintiff seeks remand for the payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 17.) 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 17-18.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision of the Commissioner or ALJ 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 Accorded Appropriate Weight to the Opinion of Dr. Wali

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Wali, M.D., from Upland Community Counseling, where Plaintiff received treatment for approximately two years.*fn1 (Joint Stip. at 2-8.) On October 28, 2010, Dr. Wali completed an assessment in which he indicated by checking boxes that Plaintiff was "unable to meet competitive standards" as to: performing at a consistent pace, accepting instructions and criticisms, getting along with co-workers, setting realistic goals, acting independently, dealing with stress of semi-skilled work, traveling in unfamiliar places, and using public transportation. (AR at 538-39.) Additionally, he said that Plaintiff was "seriously limited, but not precluded" in her ability to: remember procedures and instructions, maintain attention, maintain regular attendance, sustain a routine, work with others, ask questions, respond to changes, deal with normal stress, be aware of hazards, interact with the public, maintain socially appropriate behavior, and adhere to standards of neatness and cleanliness. (AR at 538-39.) In a very brief hand-written explanation, Dr. Wali noted that these limitations were due to Plaintiff's mood swings, anger outbursts, insomnia, medication side effects, and poor social skills. (AR at 539.)

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). An ALJ should generally accord greater probative weight to a treating physician's opinion than to opinions from non-treating sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). However, "the ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). In determining the appropriate weight to give a treating source opinion, the adjudicator considers the duration, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)(i)-(ii)). Additional factors to be considered in evaluating any medical opinion include, inter alia, "the amount of relevant evidence that supports the opinion and the quality of the explanation provided" and "the consistency of the medical opinion with the record as a whole." Orn, 495 F.3d at 631; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3)-(6)). If the ALJ decides to reject a treating physician's opinion in favor of a non-treating physician's contradictory opinion, the ALJ must give "specific and legitimate" reasons for doing so, which are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Orn, 495 F.3d at 632-33; Lester, 81 F.3d at 830.

Here, the ALJ explained that his decision to give "little weight" to Dr' Wali's assessment was based on the fact that Dr. Wali gave his opinion on a check-the-box form without providing specific facts to support the limitations he identified, and that his opinion was inconsistent with other evidence in the record. (AR at 20.) These were legitimate reasons for refusing to ...

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