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Mufazzal Ghulam Fazal v. Michael J. Astrue

November 15, 2012

MUFAZZAL GHULAM FAZAL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when she: 1) rejected the examining psychiatrist's opinion that he suffered from a severe psychological impairment; and 2) determined that he could perform his past work. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err.

II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for DIB in October 2005, alleging that he had been unable to work since November 2003, due to carpal tunnel syndrome and back, knee, and neck pain. (Administrative Record ("AR") 206-07.) The Agency denied his application initially. (AR 124-29.) He then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 130, 133.) Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 77-106.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 108-17.)

Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which remanded the case to the ALJ to, among other things, determine whether Plaintiff suffered from a mental impairment. (AR 120-22.) The ALJ held a second hearing and thereafter issued a second decision, finding that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe mental impairment and could perform his past work as a quality assistance coordinator. (AR 19-35, 40-76.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. He then commenced this action.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The ALJ's Rejection of the Examining Psychiatrist's Opinion Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when she rejected examining psychiatrist Christopher Ho's opinion that he suffered from adjustment disorder and would have difficulty performing complex tasks. (Joint Stip. at 3-6, 16-18.) For the following reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err.

The starting---and ultimately ending--point for the Court's analysis of the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Ho's opinion is the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not credible. (AR 29-32.) Plaintiff has not challenged that finding, which the Court accepts as true and reviews the ALJ's decision in that light.

Dr. Ho's opinion that Plaintiff had a psychological impairment that precluded the performance of complex tasks was based almost entirely on Plaintiff's statements to him during the examination. Dr. Ho makes that clear at the outset of his report: "The source of information for this evaluation was the patient . . . ." (AR 467.) He reiterates this in the "Functional Assessment" section of the report wherein he explains that his opinion is based on Plaintiff's "history, presentation and mental status exam, . . . ." (AR 470.) The mental status exams that Dr. Ho refers to were entirely within Plaintiff's control. For example, Dr. Ho provided Plaintiff with the names of three objects and asked him five minutes later to recall the objects. (AR 469.) Plaintiff reported that he could only remember one of them. (AR 469.) Obviously, Dr. Ho had no way of knowing whether Plaintiff was telling the truth and based his assessment on the assumption that Plaintiff was.

Where, as here, Dr. Ho's opinion was based almost exclusively on Plaintiff's representations and Plaintiff was found to be not credible, the ALJ was empowered to reject Dr. Ho's opinion on that basis alone. See Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 169 F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999) (approving ALJ's rejection of psychiatrists' opinions based, in part, on the fact that they were premised on claimant's subjective complaints, which the ALJ found to be incredible); Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 605 (9th Cir. 1989) (upholding ALJ's rejection of treating doctor's opinion that was based solely on discredited statements claimant made to treating doctor).

The ALJ also rejected Dr. Ho's opinion for other reasons, including the fact that, "[i]n the composite, Dr. Ho's examination does not support his assessment that the claimant would have difficulty with complex tasks." (AR 27.) Plaintiff takes exception to this finding and others like it and argues that they are too general. He contends that this error mandates reversal. The Court disagrees. Even assuming that all of the ALJ's other reasons for rejecting Dr. Ho's opinion were wrong, the fact that Dr. Ho's opinion was premised on Plaintiff's representations and these representations were untrue justifies the ALJ's decision to reject Dr. Ho's opinion. As such, Plaintiff's objections here do not warrant remand or reversal.*fn1

This same analysis applies to the ALJ's treatment of the other doctors' opinions. Those opinions were also based in large measure on what Plaintiff told the doctors he was feeling and experiencing. And, clearly, Plaintiff was, at the very least, grossly exaggerating his condition. For example, Plaintiff exhibited grip strength of 60 in his right hand and 50 in his left hand in November 2003, when examining orthopedist Richard Siebold tested him. (AR 406.) Without explanation, Plaintiff's grip strength in subsequent tests by other doctors purportedly continued to decline, at one point reaching O. (AR 481.) Examining orthopedist Frank Cunningham attributed this unexplained loss of grip strength to "magnification" or "voluntary inhibition of effort," meaning Plaintiff was faking. (AR 574.) The ALJ was empowered to reject the doctors' opinions that were based on Plaintiff's subjective claims--which were found to be untrue---which she did. (AR 31 ("Hence [the doctors'] opinions, when dependent upon the allegations from the claimant that are inconsistent with objective diagnostic fact, are correspondingly unreliable, are consequently of little probative value, and are therefore afforded little weight by the undersigned.").)

The bottom line is that Plaintiff's obvious exaggerations throughout this case supported the ALJ's finding that he was not credible. This credibility finding undermined the doctors' opinions that Plaintiff was impaired because the doctors relied on Plaintiff's representations in formulating their opinions. Absent Plaintiff's claimed limitations, there was essentially no evidence to support the doctors' opinions. Thus, the ALJ's rejection of the doctors' ...


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