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Tonya Lyshon Gibson v. Michael J. Astrue

September 28, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he:

(1) failed to properly consider the doctors' opinions; (2) concluded that Plaintiff was not credible; and (3) posed an incomplete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


In April 2007, Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB, alleging that she was disabled due to back pain, a bulging disc in her neck, shoulder and elbow problems, and bipolar disorder. (Administrative Record ("AR") 61, 62, 140-50, 189.) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 66, 70, 77, 80.) She then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. On September 30, 2009, she appeared with counsel at the hearing. (AR 3-31.) On May 19, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 45-56.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 32-35, 38.) This action followed.


A. The ALJ's Treatment of the Doctors' Opinions

1. The Mental Impairments

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of treating physician Thomas Sachy and examining psychologist David Rush. (Joint Stip. 10-11.) Dr. Sachy, a pain management specialist, opined that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder and chronic pain syndrome would "seriously limit" but not preclude her ability to understand and carry out even simple instructions, work with others without distractions, make simple work-related decisions, ask simple questions, respond appropriately to instruction and criticisms, and get along with others. (AR 630.) In his view, these impairments rendered her completely "unable" to maintain attention for two-hour segments, maintain regular attendance, sustain an ordinary routine, complete a normal workweek, respond to changes in a routine work setting, and deal with normal work stress. (AR 630.)

Dr. Rush's findings were somewhat less extreme, but he still concluded that Plaintiff: (1) would have difficulty remembering and following complex, but not simple, instructions; (2) might have some difficulty interacting with co-workers, supervisors, and the public; (3) would likely have difficulty adhering to a work schedule and meeting production norms; and (4) would likely decompensate under stressful conditions. (AR 439-40.)

The ALJ rejected the bulk of both doctors' findings, concluding that Plaintiff could follow simple instructions; might have difficulty maintaining concentration, persistence or pace for more than two-hour blocks of time; and would be limited to low stress jobs and jobs where contact with the public was incidental. (AR 50.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ placed significant weight on the purportedly contrary opinions of reviewing psychologists Judith Piat and John Cooper. (AR 54.) For the following reasons, the Court finds that the record does not support the ALJ's findings.

As to Dr. Sachy's opinion, the ALJ discounted it because he found that it was not supported by Dr. Sachy's objective findings. (AR 53.) Arguably, the record supports this justification to some extent. Although Plaintiff's mental health records are voluminous and present a more varied picture of her condition than the ALJ's summation might suggest, Dr. Sachy's treatment notes reflect that at times Plaintiff was generally doing well on her medications. (AR 338, 484, 486, 533, 543.) For example, in 2008, Dr. Sachy gave Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning score of 70 (AR 628), reflecting someone who was functioning at a relatively moderate level. See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at 34 (4th ed., text revision 2000). This seems to undermine Dr. Sachy's overall opinion that Plaintiff was not functional. See Morgan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 603 (9th Cir. 1999) (holding internal inconsistencies within physician's report supports rejection of the doctor's opinion).

The ALJ also relied on the fact that Plaintiff's mental health treatment under Dr. Sachy was not "consistent with what one would expect if the claimant were truly disabled . . . ." (AR 53.) The Court is not convinced that this is a valid basis for questioning Dr. Sachy's opinion. The record establishes that Plaintiff was treated with medication and therapy for her psychiatric disorders. (AR 274-355, 532-626.) It ...

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