MICHAEL L. LOGAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PATRICK J. WALSH, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Michael Logan appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). He claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when she found that his allegations were not fully credible and when she determined that he could perform light work. (Joint Stip. at 4-9, 13-17.) For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred and remands the case to the Agency for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS
In January 2009, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that he had been disabled since December 12, 2008, due to abdominal adhesions and an infection stemming from a recent surgery. (Administrative Record ("AR") 102, 115.) The Agency denied the application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 45-50, 56-60.) He then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 62-65.) On October 18, 2010, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 23-44.) On November 22, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 6-14.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-5.) This action followed.
A. The Credibility Determination
According to Plaintiff, he is essentially incapacitated, unable to sit or stand for more than five minutes at a time and precluded from lifting more than five pounds. Plaintiff claims that he takes Vicodin every day and that he spends most of the day in a reclined position to alleviate his pain. The ALJ rejected these allegations, finding that Plaintiff could perform light work. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in doing so. (Joint Stip. at 13-17.) For the following reasons, the Court agrees.
ALJs are tasked with judging the credibility of witnesses. In making these credibility determinations, they may employ ordinary credibility evaluation techniques. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). Where a claimant has produced objective medical evidence of an impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ can only reject the claimant's testimony for specific, clear, and convincing reasons, id. at 1283-84, that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002).
Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's multiple hospitalizations and surgeries (for abdominal pain and bowel obstruction) were severe impairments that could reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms. (AR 11, 12.) The ALJ found, however, that Plaintiff's allegations of disabling pain and incapacity were not credible because: (1) they were contained in written reports that were completed soon after Plaintiff was discharged from the hospital following surgery; and (2) the overall evidence did not support a finding of such severe functional limitations. (AR 12.)
Neither of these reasons constitutes a valid excuse for rejecting Plaintiff's credibility. As to the written reports, though it is true that Plaintiff completed them soon after he was released from the hospital following surgery and, therefore, his perception of his condition could have been overly influenced by the fact that he was recovering from surgery, Plaintiff testified to essentially the same ailments at the administrative hearing 18 months later. (AR 34-36, 124-26.) The ALJ never addressed that testimony, however. As such, her finding that Plaintiff's allegations were questionable because they were made at the time he was recovering from surgery is rejected.
As to the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's claims of debilitating pain were not supported by the overall evidence in the record, that finding is not sufficiently specific to withstand appellate review. See, e.g., Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 883-85 (9th Cir. 2006) (ALJ's conclusion that claimant's testimony "was not consistent with or supported by the overall medical evidence of record'" did not constitute a "meaningful explanation" for the court to assess); Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 423 (9th Cir. 1988) (holding ALJ's finding that the "totality of the evidence of record does not substantiate the claimant's allegations'" "does not achieve the level of specificity" required to disregard claimant's excess pain testimony). There is no way for the parties or the Court to determine which evidence the ALJ was referring to and why it undermined Plaintiff's testimony. As a result, there is no possibility of meaningful review and, therefore, this reason, too, is rejected. On remand, the ALJ should reconsider the credibility issue.
B. The Medical Evidence
Plaintiff complains in general that the ALJ erred in addressing the medical evidence and, more particularly, that she improperly assessed the doctors' opinions. He faults the ALJ for not accepting the opinion of his surgeon, Dr. Turner, who opined that he could not perform any work. (Joint Stip. at 8-9.) He also questions the ALJ's reliance on the medical expert, Dr. Sami Nafoosi. (Joint Stip. at 4-9.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ ...