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Dwayne R. Robinson v. Michael J. Astrue

October 31, 2012


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


Dwayne R. Robinson ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's ("Defendant") decision denying his application for disability benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff contends, among other things, that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. David Aryanpur. (Joint Stip. at 6-13.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff.

"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).

Here, the ALJ gave four reasons for discrediting the opinions of Dr. Aryanpur. The Court addresses -- and rejects -- each reason below.

A. Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF")*fn1 Scores In two separate instances, the ALJ asserted that Plaintiff's GAF scores of 47 and 50, respectively assessed by Dr. Aryanpur on March 20, 2008 and March 23, 2009, are not supported by the record. (AR at 30.) Specifically, the ALJ found these scores to be exaggerated and generally "inconsistent" with other, contemporaneous findings by Dr. Aryanpur pointing to benign impairments. (Id.) The Court disagrees.

To fall within the 41-50 range, an individual need only possess a "serious impairment in social, occupational or school functioning (e.g., no friends, unable to keep a job)." DSM-IV at 34 (bold and capitalization omitted).

Here, both the March 20, 2008 and March 23, 2009 reports mentioned serious impairments that arguably would fall within this range, but the ALJ discussed none of them. Instead, the ALJ cited only those portions of the reports that suggested that certain impairments were not severe. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (the ALJ's decision "'cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998))).

For instance, the March 20, 2008 report noted impairments like hallucinations, hearing voices, decreased concentration, irritability, excessive anxiety, and withdrawn and restricted emotions. (AR at 447-51.) Adding context, this report also discusses an incident just a few months earlier where Mr. Robinson was involuntarily committed for attempting suicide by "hold[ing] [a] gun to [him]self" in an "intoxicated, depressed state." (AR at 451.) Yet, despite these troubling conditions, the ALJ found that the report was inconsistent with its GAF score by only referring to its findings regarding Plaintiff's normal behavior, thought process, alertness, and hygiene. (AR at 30.)

Likewise, as to the March 23, 2009 report, the ALJ selectively cited its benign observations, including findings that Plaintiff had unremarkable behavior, neat hygiene, appropriate dress, and a normal thought process. (AR at 30.) However, contrary to the ALJ's characterization, this report also discussed far more serious disorders, such as a depressed mood, declining interests, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia, irritability, decreased concentration, fatigue, excessive anxiety, and daily outbursts of anger. (See AR at 559-64.)

Arguably, many of these omitted impairments could have fallen within the 41-50 range of GAF scores, and thus, at minimum, they warranted discussion. See Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1456 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Although it is within the power of the [Commissioner] to make findings . . . and to weigh conflicting evidence, he cannot reach a conclusion first, and then attempt to justify it by ignoring competent evidence in the record that suggests an opposite result") (internal citation omitted). Accordingly, in light of the ALJ's error, the Court is unable to find that the ALJ offered a specific and legitimate reason here.

B. The Decrease in GAF Scores

As her second reason, the ALJ suggested that Dr. Aryanpur assigned certain GAF scores without explanation or basis in the record. (AR at 30.) Specifically, the ALJ pointed out that Dr. Aryanpur offered "no explanation for the sudden decrease in [Plaintiff's GAF] score [from 55 on March 12, 2008 to 47 on March 20, 2008] and his records do not support [such a] decline." (Id.)

However, the ALJ appears to have misread the evidence here. It was nurse Ivan Batchkoff -- not Dr. Aryanpur -- that assessed the first GAF score of 55 on March 12, 2008. (AR at 457-62.) Thus, there is no inconsistency between the March 12, 2008 and March 20, 2008 reports for Dr. Aryanpur to explain ...

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