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Heredia v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

June 25, 2013



PATRICK J. WALSH, Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he: 1) found that she was not credible; 2) rejected her treating doctors' opinions; and 3) determined her residual functional capacity. For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err.


In July 2008, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that she was disabled due to pain in her joints and muscles, diabetes, high cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. (Administrative Record ("AR") 119-25, 139-46, 173.) According to Plaintiff, she was so incapaci-tated as a result of her ailments that she could not even walk. (AR 146.) Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. She then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. On September 28, 2010, she appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 25-39.) The ALJ denied the applications in November 2010. (AR 14-21.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-5.) This action followed.


A. The Credibility Finding

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not credible. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in doing so. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err.

The ALJ thoroughly explained why he found Plaintiff's testimony incredible. (AR 17-20.) This explanation included the fact that: Plaintiff's claim that she was almost totally incapacitated as a result of pain was not supported by the medical record; Plaintiff's treatment was conservative, consisting of mild pain relief medicine; the consulting examiner found no evidence to support Plaintiff's claimed disabling condition; and Plaintiff's work history suggested a lack of motivation. (AR 17-20.) While the Court might question the last basis, the others were clearly supported by the record and are sufficient reasons for questioning Plaintiff's testimony. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 681 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding lack of objective medical evidence to support claims is a factor ALJ can consider in evaluating claimant's testimony); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 1999) (holding inconsistency between allegations of severe pain and conservative treatment was proper basis for discounting credibility). As explained in detail below, the record does not support the extreme limitations claimed by Plaintiff and the ALJ's questioning of her credibility as a result was not in error. As such, the ALJ's credibility finding will not be disturbed.

B. The ALJ's Findings Regarding the Medical Providers

Plaintiff's treating doctors, Dr. Moore, Dr. Khurana, and Dr. Doan, determined that Plaintiff was disabled and would not be able to complete a normal workday or workweek on a regular and continuing basis. The ALJ rejected these opinions on the ground that they were not supported by the medical record, including the doctors' notes or any objective tests. For the reasons explained below, the Court affirms this finding.

Dr. Moore summarily concluded in a one-sentence "disability certificate" that Plaintiff was "totally incapacitated" due to coronary artery disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and temporomandibular joint disorder. (AR 236.) He also submitted a three-page, check-the-box form supporting that claim. (AR 237-39.) Dr. Moore, who lists his specialty as internal medicine, also completed a mental health questionnaire, concluding that Plaintiff was extremely limited-the most severe designation on the form-in every one of 16 mental/emotional categories. (AR 240-41.) Yet, there is not a single treatment record or chart note in the medical record from Dr. Moore, never mind one that supports such extreme limitations. Rather, Dr. Moore's records consist entirely of check-the-box and fill-in-the blank forms-apparently completed solely to further Plaintiff's social security case-and prescription sheets, some of which prescribe medication and others which simply contain notes to the Agency, informing it that Dr. Moore has concluded that Plaintiff is disabled. (AR 235-52.)

The ALJ properly disregarded Dr. Moore's unsupported and unsubstantiated conclusions that Plaintiff was disabled cloaked as medical opinions. See Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001) (rejecting treating physician's opinion because it was "conclusory and brief and unsupported by clinical findings"); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751-54 (9th Cir. 1989) (upholding ALJ's rejection of treating doctor's opinion that was contradicted by evidence in the record). Dr. Moore was not charged with and was not asked to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled. Rather, his task was to describe Plaintiff's ailments and explain how they limited her ability to perform work-related functions so that the ALJ could then determine whether Plaintiff was disabled, as that term is defined in social security law. Clearly, Dr. Moore overreached here. And the ALJ's discounting of Dr. Moore's conclusions as a result was not in error.

The Court reaches the same result with regard to the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Khurana's opinion. Dr. Khurana, too, concluded that Plaintiff was disabled, though not to the degree Dr. Moore did. (AR 212-13, 223-24.) The ALJ rejected Dr. Khurana's opinion because it was not supported by any treatment notes or the overall evidence in the record and it was an opinion as to the ultimate issue of disability, which is reserved to the ALJ. (AR 19.) The record supports these justifications for discounting Dr. Khurana's opinion. There are no treatment notes in this record from Dr. Khurana. None. Thus, it is unclear what he based his opinion on. In addition, there is no medical evidence in the record to support the degree of disability set forth by Dr. Khurana. For example, Dr. Khurana focused primarily on Plaintiff's ankle and foot pain in concluding that Plaintiff was unable to work because she could not stand and/or walk for long periods of time. (AR 213.) But the podiatrist who examined Plaintiff at the behest of Plaintiff's doctors, including Dr. Khurana, found that, though Plaintiff suffered from severe plantar fasciitis, she was not limited by her ankle and foot pain. In fact, the podiatrist recommended that Plaintiff ...

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