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Paul E. Antoine v. Michael J. Astrue

January 2, 2013

PAUL E. ANTOINE,
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

Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). He claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he rejected a treating doctor's opinion regarding Plaintiff's functional limitations. For the reasons discussed below, the Agency's decision is reversed and the case is remanded for further consideration.

II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS

In June 2008, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that he was disabled due to a broken left shoulder and arthritis. (Administrative Record ("AR") 93, 112-13.) His application was denied at the initial level. (AR 51, 55-59.) He then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 61-62, 67-72.) On January 20, 2010, he appeared with counsel for the hearing. (AR 34-50.) On March 5, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 21-30.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-5, 15.) This action followed.

III. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he rejected the opinion of treating doctor Craig Chanin, who found that Plaintiff's left arm impairment, which he suffered after being injured during his work duty while incarcerated, would prevent him from lifting objects weighing more than five pounds and require him to take a five- or ten-minute "stretch break" for every hour he worked. (AR 271, 274, 282, 289, 292.) The ALJ did not adopt these limitations but instead determined that Plaintiff would be able to perform light work, i.e. work that requires occasionally lifting up to 20 pounds and frequently lifting up to ten pounds, so long as he used his left hand no more than occasionally and did not use it above shoulder level. (AR 27.) The ALJ did not address the break requirement at all. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that further consideration of this issue is warranted.

"By rule, the [Agency] favors the opinion of a treating physician over non-treating physicians." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999) (explaining that a treating physician's opinion "is given deference because 'he is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual'" (quoting Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987))).

For this reason, generally speaking, a treating physician's opinion that is well-supported and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record will be given controlling weight. Orn, 495 F.3d at 631. That being said, however, an ALJ is not required to simply accept a treating doctor's opinion. Where, as here, Dr. Chanin's opinion was contradicted by reviewing physician A. Ahmed, who opined that Plaintiff could do light work (AR 160-66), the ALJ was empowered to reject it for specific and legitimate reasons that were supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)); Morgan, 169 F.3d at 600.

Dr. Chanin evaluated Plaintiff in September 8, 2008 in connection with a claim that he submitted after injuring his shoulder. (AR 277-83.) Dr. Chanin noted that Plaintiff had undergone surgery on his shoulder in March 2005 and again in March 2008. (AR 278.) After examining him, Dr. Chanin found that Plaintiff was temporarily partially disabled and that he would not be able to climb, bend, stoop, kneel, or squat; perform overhead work with his left arm; lift, push, or pull more than five pounds; use his left arm in a prolonged repetitive motion; grip, grasp, or twist with his left hand; and that he would have to take a five- or ten-minute break for each hour worked. (AR 281-82.) Dr. Chanin made the same findings in a series of follow-up reports between October 6, 2008 and February 12, 2009. (AR 271, 274, 285, 289, 292.)

In August 2009, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Roger Sohn, who found that he had "obvious weakness with stiffness of the left shoulder" and suffered from severe degenerative disease that would ultimately require him to undergo a total shoulder replacement. (AR 178, 179.) Dr. Sohn limited him to "no substantial work and no work at or above shoulder level."*fn1 (AR 178.)

The ALJ discounted these opinions, finding that (1) the determination of disability is an issue reserved to the Agency;

(2) Dr. Chanin noted Plaintiff's shoulder impairments, but also found him limited in activities "unrelated to the shoulder, such as kneeling and climbing"; and (3) the record did not support the degree of limitations assessed by the doctors. (AR 28.) For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that these justifications are inadequate.

Although the ALJ was not required to accept the treating doctor's opinion that Plaintiff was disabled, the fact that Dr. Chanin offered an opinion on that issue does not mean that his entire opinion should have been disregarded. See Orn, 495 F.3d at 631-33 (explaining, even if treating doctor's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, it must still be considered by ALJ); see also Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1203 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding treating doctor's ...


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