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Torre v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

May 23, 2013



JAY C. GANDHI, Magistrate Judge.

Angelina De La Torre ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") improperly rejected the December 29, 2009 opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Pedro M. Florescio. (Joint Stip. at 14-17.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff for the reasons stated below.

A. An ALJ Must Provide Specific and Legitimate Reasons to Reject the Contradicted 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 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).

B. The ALJ Failed to Provide Specific and Legitimate Reasons for Rejecting Dr. Florescio's Treating Opinion

Here, the ALJ provided two reasons for rejecting Dr. Florescio's December 29, 2009 treating opinion. (AR at 30-31; see 351-58.) The Court addresses - and rejects - both reasons below.

First, the ALJ found that Dr. Florescio's opinion was "speculative." (AR at 31.) In support, the ALJ pointed to Dr. Florescio's belief that Plaintiff would have to miss work more than three times per month as a result of her impairments. (AR at 31; see AR at 358.)

Perhaps this response is speculative, but it does not purport to be otherwise. Indeed, the questionnaire provided to Dr. Florescio disavows any pretense to objectivity, and asks the physician only to " estimate, on the average, how often [Plaintiff] is likely to be absent from work...." (AR at 358 (emphasis added).) By rejecting Dr. Florescio's response as speculative, the ALJ thus appears to have misunderstood the context in which the opinion was given. As to this reason, then, the ALJ's critique misses the mark.

Second, the ALJ determined that most of the limitations suggested by Dr. Florescio are "not supported by the treatment record." (AR at 31.) In particular, the ALJ noted that, according to Dr. Florescio's own medical records, Plaintiff had a "fair response to medication with no side effects." ( Id. )

It is unclear, however, how this evidence weakens Dr. Florescio's findings. At minimum, to satisfy the specific and legitimate standard, the ALJ must explain how specific treatment records conflict with specific portions of Dr. Florescio's opinion. See Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421 (9th Cir. 1988) (reasoning similarly); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751 (requiring "a detailed and thorough summary of... conflicting clinical evidence.") Absent such necessary details, this reason must also be rejected.[2]

Accordingly, for the reasons stated above, the Court determines that the ALJ improperly discredited Dr. Florescio's treating opinion. The Court thus determines that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001).

C. Remand is Warranted

With error established, this Court has discretion to remand or reverse and award benefits. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 603 (9th Cir. 1989). Where no useful purpose would be served by further proceedings, or where the record has been fully developed, it is appropriate to exercise this discretion to direct an immediate award of benefits. See Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595-96 (9th Cir. 2004). But where there are outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination can be made, or it is not clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find plaintiff disabled if all the evidence were properly evaluated, remand is appropriate. See id. at 594.

Here, in light of the ALJ's error, the credibility of Dr. Florescio must be properly assessed. Therefore, on remand, the ALJ shall reevaluate his opinions and either credit them as true, or provide valid reasons for any portion that is rejected.

Based on the foregoing, IT IS ORDERED THAT judgment shall be entered REVERSING the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits and REMANDING the matter for further administrative action consistent with this decision.[3]

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