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Ramos v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

January 27, 2014

MONICA RAMOS, Plaintiff,


PATRICH J. WALSH, District Judge.


Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). She claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he: (1) rejected her testimony and the testimony of lay witnesses; (2) determined her residual functional capacity; and (3) discounted the opinion of treating doctors and a social worker. For the reasons explained below, the court concludes that the ALJ did not err.


Plaintiff was born on May 31, 1990. (Administrative Record ("AR") 139.) On December 2, 2008, she applied for SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since May 31, 2008, due to autism/Asperger's Syndrome, mental illness, obesity, anxiety, depression, and hypertension. (AR 139-42, 163, 194.) After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, she requested and was granted a hearing before an AL (AR 119-21.) In May 2011, she appeared with counsel at the hearing and testified. (AR 63-93.) On June 24, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that she was not disabled. (AR 18-25.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied her 9 request for review. (AR 1-3.) This appeal followed.


A. The Credibility Findings

i. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff claimed that her cognitive and emotional/psychiatric problems precluded her from working. The ALJ determined that these claims were inconsistent with the fact that she was not receiving psychiatric treatment or psychotropic medications; attended college; had been assessed a GAF of 60; and was generally able to communicate. reasons, the Court concludes that, though the ALJ did err as to some of these points, the overall credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence and will be affirmed.

ALJs are tasked with judging the credibility of witnesses, including the claimants. In making these determinations, they may employ ordinary credibility evaluation techniques. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). However, 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 a 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).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not as impaired as she claimed because she was not receiving treatment for her condition, i.e., psychiatric treatment and/or psychotropic medications. (AR 23.) Generally speaking, a claimant's failure to obtain treatment is a valid reason to question her claim of disabling impairment. See Flaten v. Sec'y, Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1464 (9th Cir. 1995) (holding ALJ entitled to question claims of impairment where claimant fails to obtain medical care to treat it).The problem with the AL's reliance on this factor, however, is that there is no evidence in the record that either psychiatric treatment or psychotropic meditations were called for.

As to psychiatric treatment, there is evidence that Plaintiff received counseling services from a therapist for her shyness, which seemed to help her overcome it to some extent. (AR 242-55.) Plaintiff attempted to obtain additional counseling services from a county mental healthcare provider but was turned away because her condition did not meet its guidelines. (AR 316.) The record does not appropriate for her condition and that she chose not to pursue it.

As to psychotropic medications, the Court was unable to find any entries in the medical records where a doctor prescribed psychotropic medication for Plaintiff and she refused to take it. Plaintiff argues that the reason that she was not taking psychotropic medications was because they are not used to treat her condition. In the absence of any evidence to contradict this claim, the Court accepts it. Further, even assuming, arguendo, that alternate treatment was indicated, the Court is hard pressed to conclude that Plaintiff should have recognized this fact and sought out that treatment. See Nguyen v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1462, 1465 (9th Cir. 1996). For these reasons, the Court does not agree that Plaintiff's failure to obtain psychiatric treatment undermines her claim that she is disabled.

The ALJ also relied on the fact that Plaintiff's daily activities suggested greater abilities than she admitted. (AR 23.) The record on this issue is mixed. Plaintiff was taking art and computer classes at a local college and had been for three years when she testified at the hearing. (AR 74.) Presumably, attending college required greater ability than Plaintiff admitted to, even assuming that it was a community college. But, as to Plaintiff's other daily activities listed by the ALJ as a reason to question her claims, for example, watching T.V., playing on the computer, and performing household chores, the Court would agree with Plaintiff that these activities, at least as she and her family described them, were not so interactive and complex as to undermine her claims of disabling social isolation and cognitive impairment. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 639 (9th Cir. 2007) (finding watching television is an activity that is "so undemanding that [it] cannot be said to bear ...

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