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Johnny Henry Beckham v. Michael J. Astrue


October 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge


Johnny Henry Beckham ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's ("Defendant") decision denying his application for disability benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Gabriel Rubanenko. (Joint Stip. at 3-6, 16-17.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff for the reasons discussed below.

"As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who do not treat the claimant." Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). This is so because a treating physician "is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual." Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987).

Where the "treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the [ALJ] may not reject this opinion without providing specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record[.]" Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The ALJ can meet the requisite specific and legitimate standard "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A. The ALJ's Rejection of Dr. Rubanenko's Treating Opinion As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that the ALJ's decision does not clearly reject Dr. Rubanenko's opinion, much less provide reasons for doing so.

On one hand, presumably some of the work restrictions assigned by Dr. Rubanenko*fn1 were rejected because they are not reflected in the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination.*fn2 For instance, entirely omitted from the RFC determination are Dr. Rubanenko's requirements that Plaintiff be allowed to shift positions at will, take unscheduled hourly breaks, and be absent more than three times per month. (Compare AR at 1247-49 with AR at 24.) That Dr. Rubanenko's opinion was rejected is a conclusion also suggested by the ALJ's different limitations regarding Plaintiff's abilities to sit and lift. (Compare AR at 1247-49 (limiting Plaintiff to sitting for less than six hours of an eight hour day, and occasionally lifting and/or carrying 10 pounds) with AR at 24 (limiting Plaintiff to sitting for at least six hours of an eight hour day, and lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds).)

Yet, despite apparently rejecting Dr. Rubanenko's opinion, the ALJ's decision never voiced a single criticism of the opinion. Indeed, to the contrary, the ALJ gave the opinion "great weight" and even credited it as "a longitudinal perspective on [Plaintiff's] health." (AR at 26.) Given these facts, the ALJ either rejected Dr. Rubanenko's opinion, or simply failed to fully consider it when determining Plaintiff's RFC. Rather than find error at this point, the Court will instead give the ALJ the benefit of doubt and assume that some portion of Dr. Rubanenko's opinion was rejected.

B. The ALJ Did Not Provide Specific and Legitimate Reasons for Rejecting Dr. Rubanenko's Opinion

In light of the ambiguity described above, it is not surprising that the ALJ did not offer any clear reasons supporting his rejection of Dr. Rubanenko's opinion. As to this deficiency, Defendant asserts that the ALJ need not state his reasoning explicitly, but rather it is the Court that must draw inferences from the ALJ's decision. (Joint Stip. at 11-12.); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 755.

Defendant's contention is true, however, only "if those inferences are there to be drawn." Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. In other words, there must be some basis in the language of the decision from which the Court may build upon. See id. at 755 ("we are not deprived of our faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion. It is proper for us to read the paragraph discussing [a treating physician's] findings . . . and draw inferences [from it]" (emphasis added)).

Here, as Defendant points out, ample reasons exist in the record to reject Dr. Rubanenko's opinion. (See Joint Stip. at 12-15.) After all, Doctors Siciarz, Vu, and Ahmed all assigned numerous work limitations that differ from Dr. Rubanenko's and would support the ALJ's RFC determination. (See AR at 75-99, 1175-79, 1180-85.) For instance, all three physicians found, as the ALJ did, that Plaintiff can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. (AR at 77, 1178, 1181.) Similarly, Doctors Vu and Ahmed, like the ALJ, limited Plaintiff to sitting for up to six hours, while Dr. Siciarz did not even restrict Plaintiff's sitting. (AR at 77-78, 1178, 1181.)

Nevertheless, absent some basis in the ALJ's decision, the Court cannot infer any of these reasons. In his decision, the ALJ merely restated the opinions of Doctors Siciarz, Vu, and Ahmed without discussing their merits or relation to Dr. Rubanenko's work limitations. (See AR at 24-26.) At best, the ALJ vaguely concurred with these contrary opinions as a whole and without any specificity. For example, the ALJ found Dr. Siciarz's opinion to be "generally consistent" with Dr. Ahmed's. (AR at 25.) Further, the ALJ "generally concur[red]" with the testimony of Dr. Vu because the record "generally support[ed]" it. (AR at 26.) This mere mentioning of contrary opinions provides no basis for any specific inferences regarding Dr. Rubanenko's opinion. Thus, the Court is unable to find any specific and legitimate reasons supporting the ALJ's credibility determination here.

Accordingly, the Court determines that the ALJ improperly discredited the opinion of Dr. Rubanenko.

C. Remand is Warranted

With error established, this Court has discretion to remand or reverse and award benefits. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 603 (9th Cir. 1989). Where no useful purpose would be served by further proceedings, or where the record has been fully developed, it is appropriate to exercise this discretion to direct an immediate award of benefits. See Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595-96 (9th Cir. 2004).

But where there are outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination can be made, or it is not clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find plaintiff disabled if all the evidence were properly evaluated, remand is appropriate. See id. at 594.

Here, in light of the ALJ's error, Dr. Rubanenko's credibility must be properly assessed and explained. Therefore, on remand, the ALJ shall reevaluate the opinions of Dr. Rubanenko and either credit them as true, or provide valid reasons for any portion that is rejected.

Based on the foregoing, IT IS ORDERED THAT judgment shall be entered REVERSING the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits and REMANDING the matter for further administrative action consistent with this decision.*fn3

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