United States District Court, S.D. California
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
BARRY TED MOSKOWITZ, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff and Defendant have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, each motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.
On December 6, 2007, Plaintiff Tyra Williams filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under SSA Title XVI. (A.R. 209-217, Exs. ID & 2D.) Plaintiff alleged disability as of September 26, 2006, when she was in a car accident. Her claim was denied on July 3, 2008, and was denied on reconsideration on November 25, 2008. (A.R. 97.) Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel at a brief hearing in May 2010, but the hearing was continued because the agency's record was incomplete. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") ordered a consultative orthopedic examination in the interim. (A.R. 74.) Plaintiff and her counsel again appeared before an ALJ for a full hearing on October 12, 2010. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. On January 19, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as of the decision date. (A.R. 20, 32.) Plaintiff filed a request for review, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ decision a final decision of the Commissioner. (A.R. 1-3.)
On April 6, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with the Court seeking judicial review of the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). She also requested assistance in obtaining legal counsel. Following a January 2013 hearing, the Court found that exceptional circumstances rendered Plaintiff eligible for such assistance pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1) and General Order 596. Through the Court's Pro Bono Panel and the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, Plaintiff obtained counsel effective May 1, 2013. (Doc. 21.)
II. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
The ALJ found as follows:
1. Plaintiff had disability insurance coverage through September 30, 2012, including September 26, 2006, the alleged onset date.
2. Plaintiff earned about $2, 500 by providing in-home support services in 2007, but that did not amount to substantial gainful activity.
3. Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: strain/sprain of cervical spine, resulting in neck and shoulder pain; chronic strain, lumbar spine; slight hip joint narrowing, right hip; headaches; controlled hypertension; controlled asthma; controlled GERD; hemorrhoids; mild obesity; and major depressive disorder.
4. The record lacked credible evidence that Plaintiff's impairments meet the mental criteria set forth in Appx. 1, Sub. P, Reg. No. 4 including listing 12.04 (Adult Mental Disorders). Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments do not meet or equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1. Plaintiff had a mild restriction in activities of daily living, and moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. (A.R. 24-5).
5. Plaintiff has the residual capacity to perform sedentary work, lifting and carrying up to ten pounds, sitting for six hours of an eight-hour workday, and standing/walking for two hours per eight-hour workday, with (a) exertional limits: no pushing or pulling in the operation of machinery with either lower extremity; (b) non-exertional limits: no climbing ladders, scaffolds, or ropes; no working at unprotected heights; no balancing, kneeling, or crawling; no reaching or working overhead; no concentrated exposure to dangerous moving machinery, electric shock, radiation, or unprotected heights; no concentrated exposure to chemicals, dust, fumes, gases, or extreme heat, cold, or humidity; only occasional use of ramps or stairs; and only occasional stooping or crouching; and (c) mental limits: unskilled work with no close or frequent interpersonal contact with the public.
6. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work as a home attendant (DOT No. 354.377-014, medium, unskilled at SVP-2).
7. Plaintiff was 37 years old at the time of alleged onset and was 41 years old on the date of the decision, making her "a younger individual aged 18-44." (A.R. 31.) 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.4564, 416.963.
For these and other reasons, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform only a limited range of sedentary work, but concluded she was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from the alleged onset date of September 26, 2006, through the date of the ALJ decision, January 19, 2011.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Commissioner's denial of benefits may be set aside if it is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence. Jamerson v. Chater , 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Id . Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Flaten v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs. , 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). If the evidence can reasonably support either affirmance or reversal, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Maynes v. Massanari , 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is erroneous because the ALJ (1) did not give controlling weight to the opinions of Dr. Silbert, the treating physician; (2) placed undue weight on the opinions of medical advisors and non-treating physicians; and (3) failed to provide adequate justification for making adverse credibility determinations as to the testimony of Plaintiff and her daughter. As discussed below, the Court agrees in part and disagrees in part.
A. Analysis of Physicians' Opinions
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred "by not according the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Silbert, controlling weight, ' or, at the very least, the greatest weight' of all opinions contained in the Administrative Record" in violation of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2), and SSR 96-2. According to Plaintiff, she would have satisfied the disability criteria if Dr. Silbert's opinion was given controlling weight.
The ALJ gave Dr. Silbert's opinion(s) "little weight, " describing the doctor's functional assessments as "self-contradictory to the point of absurdity." (A.R. 30.) The ALJ explained that "[n]othing In Dr. Silbert's treating records or anywhere else in the record even begins to support [the] extreme functional limitations assessed by Dr. Silbert, which grossly exceed the [limits] assessed by Dr. Sabourin, Dr. Mazuryk, and Dr. Rigler." (Id.) The Court agrees to a point but also finds the ALJ's explanation wanting. More specifically, the Court finds adequate support in the record for limiting the weight accorded to Dr. ...