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Anthony Anaya v. Carolyn W. Colvin

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


May 16, 2013

ANTHONY ANAYA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,*FN1 DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert N. Block United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER

The Court now rules as follows with respect to the one disputed issue listed in the Joint Stipulation, which is directed to the rejection by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") of the treating physician's opinion.*fn2

The law is well established in this Circuit that a treating physician's opinions are entitled to special weight because a treating physician is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual. See McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 602 (9th Cir. 1989). "The treating physician's opinion is not, however, necessarily conclusive as to either a physical condition or the ultimate issue of disability." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989). The weight given a treating physician's opinion depends on whether it is supported by sufficient medical data and is consistent with other evidence in the record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2). If the treating physician's opinion is uncontroverted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for "clear and convincing" reasons. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996); Baxter v. Sullivan, 923 F.3d 1391, 1396 (9th Cir. 1991). Where, as here, the treating physician's opinion is controverted, it may be rejected only if the ALJ makes findings setting forth specific and legitimate reasons that are based on the substantial evidence of record. See, e.g., Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) ("A treating physician's opinion on disability, even if controverted, can be rejected only with specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record."); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751; Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 647 (9th Cir. 1987).

Here, the record indicates that plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Sekhon, wrote a letter stating, "It is my medical opinion that even with medication support, Mr. Anaya will be unable to retain employment due to his mental disability." (See AR 480.) Dr. Sekhon also completed a questionnaire stating that plaintiff would be "unable to meet competitive standards" in several areas of mental functioning and would be absent from work more than four days per month. (See AR 481-82.)

The ALJ proffered three reasons for finding that the letter and questionnaire completed by Dr. Sekhon had "no probative value": (1) they appeared to have been completed as an accommodation to plaintiff; (2) they included only conclusions regarding functional limitations, with the only rationale for those conclusions being plaintiff's subjective complaints; and (3) they were not supported by any objective medical evidence. (See AR 59.) The Court finds that all of these reasons were specific and legitimate, and supported by the evidence of record.

First, the ALJ's observation that Dr. Sekhon's opinion appeared to have been completed as an accommodation to plaintiff was not impermissible in light of the reasons on the whole. In general, "[t]he purpose for which medical reports are obtained does not provide a legitimate basis for rejecting them." See Lester, 81 F.3d at 832; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 726 (same). However, the purpose for which a medical opinion was obtained may be considered "where the opinion itself provides grounds for suspicion as to its legitimacy." See Nguyen v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1462, 1464 (9th Cir. 1996); see also Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 523 (9th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (purpose for which medical opinion was obtained may be considered where there are "actual improprieties" in the opinion, such as the absence of any objective medical basis for the opinion or its reliance on the claimant's discredited subjective allegations); Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1339 (9th Cir. 1988) (same where there is no objective medical basis for the opinion). As discussed below, in light of the actual improprieties the ALJ found in Dr. Sekhon's opinion, it was not impermissible for the ALJ to question the purpose for which the opinion was obtained.

Second, the ALJ's determination that Dr. Sekhon's opinion was conclusory, insofar as it was based on plaintiff's subjective complaints, was a legally sufficient reason to give it no probative value. The Court's review of the record confirms the ALJ's determination that Dr. Sekhon's sparse treatment records largely consisted of recordings of plaintiff's subjective symptom complaints. (See AR 462-70.) The Court's review of the record also confirms that the ALJ provided legally sufficient reasons to reject plaintiff's subject symptom complaints, which plaintiff does not challenge here. See Morgan v. Chater, 169 F.3d 595, 602 (9th Cir. 1999) (a physician's opinion of disability premised to a large extent upon the claimant's own accounts of his symptoms and limitations may be disregarded where those complaints have been properly discounted); Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 605 (9th Cir. 1989) (same); Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433-34 (9th Cir. 1988) (per curiam) (same); see also Saelee, 94 F.3d at 523 (ALJ permissibly questioned purpose for which medical report was obtained where report relied on claimant's subjective allegations, which the ALJ properly disregarded as entirely untrustworthy).

Third, the ALJ's determination that Dr. Sekhon's opinion was not supported by any objective medical evidence was a legally sufficient reason to give it no probative value. The Court's review of the record confirms that there was little evidence of medical findings, personal observations, or test reports upon which Dr. Sekhon could have arrived at his conclusion that plaintiff was disabled. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002) ("The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings."); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding that treating physician's opinion that was "unsupported by rationale or treatment notes, and offered no objective medical findings" to support diagnoses was properly rejected); see also Saelee, 94 F.3d at 523 (ALJ permissibly questioned purpose for which medical report was obtained where there was no objective medical basis for treating physician's opinion); Burkhart, 856 F.2d at 1339 (same where treating physician's opinion was "nothing more than a statement of his unsupported opinion").

The Court therefore finds and concludes that reversal is not warranted based on the ALJ's alleged failure to properly consider Dr. Sekhon's opinion.

IT THEREFORE IS ORDERED that Judgment be entered affirming the decision of the Commissioner and dismissing this action with prejudice.


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