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Stephen Mcinteer v. Carolyn W. Colvin


March 29, 2013


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


Stephen McInteer ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the February 8, 2010 opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Sherri Jia-Liang Lee. (Joint Stip. at 4-6, 12-15; see AR at 337-41.) The Court disagrees with Plaintiff for the reasons discussed below. /// ///

A. An ALJ Must Provide Clear and Convincing Reasons to Reject the Uncontradicted Opinion of a Treating Physician

"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); accord Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1036 (9th Cir. 2003). 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 physician's "opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for 'clear and convincing' reasons." Benton, 331 F.3d at 1036.

B. The ALJ Provided Clear and Convincing Reasons for Rejecting Dr. Lee's Treating Opinion

The ALJ rejected both the mental and physical aspects of Dr. Lee's February 8, 2010 treating opinion. (AR at 17, 20; see AR at 337-41.) The Court addresses each in turn.

1. Dr. Lee's Mental Health Assessment The ALJ gave four reasons for discrediting Dr. Lee's mental assessment.*fn2

First, the ALJ found Dr. Lee's February 2010 assessment to be inconsistent with her other, earlier assessments in December 2007 and January 2009. (AR at 17.) Despite apparently suffering from anxiety disorder and major depression, (AR at 337), Plaintiff was described in these earlier assessments as having a "normal affect, normal mood, and normal judgment." (Id.; see AR at 269 ("[m]ood, affect and judgment normal"), 276 ("affect is normal, thoughts a little tangential, mood is normal").)

Second, the ALJ found Dr. Lee's opinion to be inconsistent with the medical record as a whole, which documented "a stable mental condition" and noted that Plaintiff "responded well to psychotropic medication, stated he was no longer depressed, and was mentally normal." (AR at 17.) Without belaboring the ALJ's discussion of the record -- spanning over two pages -- the Court will instead highlight only select portions. (See generally AR at 15-17.)

On November 15, 2002, Plaintiff began treatment for "major depression" and related mental conditions. (AR at 15; see AR at 256.) Over the following years, Plaintiff was treated with medication, and exhibited an improved mental condition. (AR at 15; see, e.g.,AR at 239 (December 13, 2004 report, noting Plaintiff feeling "better" and continuing prescription for Zoloft, an antidepressant), AR at 245 (noting "better mood" and reduced anxiety).) As a result of such treatment, from 2006 to early 2009, Plaintiff's mental condition appeared to stabilize. (AR at 17; see, e.g., AR at 225 (February 8, 2007 report noting "[m]oods have been good and stable on . . . Zoloft"), AR at 219 (December 27, 2007 note indicating"no depression, some anxiety").) Thus, in light of such documented improvements, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Lee's opinion as inconsistent with the medical record as a whole.

Third, the ALJ properly found that Dr. Lee's opinion was "brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." (AR at 17); see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004)(a treating physician's opinion may be rejected if it is conclusory, brief, and unsupported). Specifically, the ALJ correctly noted that Dr. Lee merely "checked off" depression and anxiety as factors affecting Plaintiff's ability to work without any explanation as to why that is so. (AR at 17; see AR at 338.)

Fourth, and last, the ALJ properly observed that Plaintiff's activities of daily living undermine the functional limitations stated in Dr. Lee's assessment. Indeed, Plaintiff's hobbies, including "antiquing, racing cars, working at a machine shop, and gunsmithing," all require a measure of strength and concentration that Dr. Lee had indicated was prohibitive. (Compare AR at AR at 221 (listing hobbies) with AR at 337 (noting pain worsens with "physical . . . tasks involving hands"), 338 (medication causes "significant sleepiness/grogginess").) To survive critique, Dr. Lee's opinion should have addressed this apparent inconsistency.

Accordingly, for the reasons stated above, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Lee's assessment of Plaintiff's mental health.

2. Dr. Lee's Physical Health Assessment

Next, the ALJ provided five reasons for rejecting Dr. Lee's assessment of Plaintiff's physical health.

First, the ALJ properly gave no weight to Dr. Lee's opinion on the issue of disability, which is a legal determination to be made only by the ALJ. Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999).

Second, the ALJ again found Dr. Lee's opinion to be "brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." (AR at 20.) In support, the ALJ noted that the opinion found severe limitations -- amounting to a narrow range of sedentary work -- without any supporting explanation. (AR at 337-41.) Granted, some clinical findings were offered (e.g., mild diffuse swelling, and enlargement of phalangeal joints) and some symptoms were listed (e.g., "constant daily pain and stiffness"), but notably absent is any discussion as to how these impairments result in the stated limitations. (See id.)

Third, the ALJ noted Dr. Lee's minimal treatment history, having only seen Plaintiff a "few times per year." (AR at 20; see generally AR at 212-321.)

Fourth, the ALJ observed that the opinion failed to provide any supporting objective clinical findings, relying instead on Plaintiff's subjective complaints, diagnoses, and treatment. (AR at 20.) Specifically, the ALJ found no evidence of diffuse swelling, or enlargement of the claimant's phalangeal joints in the record. (Id.) And, indeed, the record supports this finding. (See, e.g., AR at 276 (noting no joint swelling), 298 (absence of swelling generally), 323 (no joint swelling).) Notably, other than pointing to proof of her pain medication, Plaintiff has failed to provide any contrary evidence. (See Joint Stip. at 4-6, 12-15.)

Fifth, the ALJ found Dr. Lee's opinion to be inconsistent with the objective evidence of the record. (AR at 20.) Again, without regurgitating the ALJ's discussion on this topics, the Court underscores, for instance, that the ALJ properly found that the treatment records documented no severe physical impairment. (See, e.g., AR at 264 (assessing only a strained neck and muscle spasms).) Similarly, Plaintiff's June 20, 2009 x-ray of his cervical spine only revealed evidence of degenerative discs, and was otherwise benign. (AR at 266.) Were Plaintiff's impairments as severe as alleged, one would expect, for instance, more alarming reports by physicians. (See AR at 337.)

Thus, for the reasons stated above, the Court determines that the ALJ properly rejected the opinion of Dr. Lee.*fn3

Accordingly, the Court finds that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled. See Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). ///

Based on the foregoing, IT IS ORDERED THAT judgment shall be entered AFFIRMING the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits.

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