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Steven H. Murtishaw v. Carolyn W. Colvin

March 28, 2013

STEVEN H. MURTISHAW, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,*FN1 DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Steven H. Murtishaw ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability benefits. Two issues are presented for decision here:

1. whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Drs. Michael Roach and Gale Schuler, (see Joint Stip. at 3-6, 12-13); and

2. whether the ALJ improperly rejected Plaintiff's credibility. (See id. at 14-15, 17-18.)

The Court addresses -- and rejects -- Plaintiff's contentions below.

A. The ALJ's Rejection of Treating Opinions Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of his treating physicians, Drs. Roach and Schuler. (Joint Stip. at 3-6, 12-13.)

"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).

The Court discusses the ALJ's treatment of each physician below.

1. Dr. Roach

The ALJ gave three reasons for discrediting Dr. Roach's opinion.

First, the ALJ found Dr. Roach's analysis of Plaintiff's gastric cancer to be unsupported "by the medical evidence in the record." (AR at 28); see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 359 F.3d 1190, 1197 (9th Cir. 2004) (treating physician's opinion may be rejected as "unsupported by the record as a whole"). For instance, with respect to Dr. Roach's finding of "distant metastas[is]," the ALJ cited Plaintiff's MRI results, which provided "[n]o evidence of abdominal [metastasis]." (Id.; compare AR at 629 with AR at 382.) Similarly, Dr. Roach's prognosis of Plaintiff's gastric cancer -- simply stated as "poor" -- was also undermined by Plaintiff's treating oncologist,*fn2 Dr. Jack Freimann, who found the condition to be controlled by chemotherapy medication. (AR at 28; compare AR at 629 with AR at 640.) Thus, in light of such documented inconsistencies, no error was made here.

Second, the ALJ found Dr. Roach's April 27, 2010 mental health assessment to be "vague and unclear" concerning the effects of Plaintiff's fatigue. (AR at 32); see Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195 (treating physician's opinion may be rejected if it is conclusory, brief, and unsupported). Specifically, the ALJ determined that Dr. Roach failed to "quantify"*fn3 how Plaintiff's severe fatigue would affect his ability to work. (AR at 32; see AR at 656.) In fact, the questionnaire provided to Dr. Roach -- in no uncertain terms -- asked him to "[d]describe [Plaintiff's] ability to adapt to stresses common to the work environment." (AR at 656.) Lest there be any confusion, it then also queried, "[i]n what way, if any, have these [abilities] changed as a result of [Plaintiff's] condition?" (Id.) Though pressed for details, Dr. Roach only gave a two-word response: "severe fatigue." (Id.) Such brevity provides adequate grounds to reject Dr. Roach's opinion.

Third, the ALJ noted that Dr. Roach, in spite of his assessment of Plaintiff's limitations, failed to identify any medically determinable mental impairment. (AR at 32.) This reason, however, is somewhat misleading. Though no purely "mental" impairment was noted, the ALJ did describe, albeit in basic terms, that Plaintiff's gastric cancer -- undoubtedly, a medically determinable impairment -- caused the severe fatigue. (AR at 655.) In ...


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