United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
(Social Security Case)
VICTOR B. KENTON, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the Administrative Record ("AR") before the Commissioner. The parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified AR.
Plaintiff raises the following issues:
1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly evaluated the opinions of the treating physician;
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of the consultative psychiatrist; and
3. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of the Agreed Medical Examiner.
(JS at 3.)
Since the Court determines that the first issue is dispositive of the outcome, the Court declines to address the second and third issues.
This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that for the reasons set forth, the Decision of the Commissioner must be reversed and the matter remanded for calculation of benefits.
THE ALJ FAILED TO PROPERLY EVALUATE THE OPINIONS OF TREATING PHYSICIAN DR. STEIGER
Joylynn Adrian ("Claimant" or "Ms. Adrian") originally filed her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on May 29, 2007. (AR 350-352.) After administrative denials, she requested and was granted a hearing on March 24, 2009 before an ALJ, at which time Ms. Adrian testified, along with a medical expert ("ME"), and vocational expert ("VE"). (AR 136-158.) A supplemental hearing was held on September 14, 2009 in which, again, testimony was taken from Ms. Adrian and a VE. (AR 120-135.) The ALJ then issued a Decision denying benefits on November 5, 2009. (AR 162-173.) Pursuant to a request for review, the Appeals Council remanded the matter for further administrative hearing. (AR 174-178.) On remand, the ALJ conducted a hearing on November 21, 2011, at which time testimony was taken from a VE, an ME, and Gary Adrian, as the heir and representative of the estate of Joy Adrian, who had passed away during the request for review procedure before the Appeals Council. (AR 105-119.) The ALJ then issued an unfavorable Decision on December 13, 2011. (AR 26-47.) The Appeals Council denied a request for review, leaving the December 13, 2011 Decision as the Commissioner's final Decision. The Court thus reviews that Decision in this civil action. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c).
Dr. Ralph N. Steiger acted as Plaintiff's treating physician, and also prepared a Medical Source Statement on October 10, 2007 at the request of the Social Security Administration. (AR 580-582.) Based upon his treatment of Ms. Adrian, Dr. Steiger opined that she would be able to lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; that she could stand/walk less than two hours per workday; that she required a cane and a walker to ambulate; that she could sit for only 15 to 30 minutes in an eight-hour workday; and that she needs to alternate between sitting and standing every 5 to 10 minutes. (AR 580-581.) If these limitations had been incorporated by the ALJ into the residual functional capacity ("RFC") determined in the Decision, the parties do not dispute that Ms. Adrian would have been determined to be disabled for purposes of Social Security benefits. At the hearing before the ALJ, Ms. Adrian's counsel posed hypothetical restrictions to the VE which were in addition to those posited by the ALJ at AR 125-126. The additional restrictions were that the individual would be unable to sit more than two hours in an eight-hour day. Even before the VE responded, the ALJ "stipulated" that such an individual would be disabled because she would only be able to work four hours a day, which is less than full-time employment. (AR 127.) Thus, the Court's decision comes down to whether or not the ALJ provided legally sufficient reasons to reject the restrictions on Ms. Adrian's exertional abilities as determined by Dr. Steiger. For the reasons to be set forth, the Court determines that the ALJ failed to do that.
The Court must search the four corners of the ALJ's Decision to locate articulated "specific and legitimate" reasons for rejecting Dr. Steiger's opinion. See Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). The Court must also presume that the ALJ approached the evaluation of Dr. Steiger's opinion in a neutral, unbiased fashion. Unfortunately, that was not the case. In his Decision, the ALJ articulated an extreme bias against "medical ...