United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
E. C. ECHOLS, JR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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") committed harmful legal error in granting reduced or no weight to the physical function assessment of treating orthopedic surgeon Mays;
2. Whether the finding that Plaintiff's subjective complaints are not credible is supported by clear and convincing rationales; and
3. Whether the Appeals Council erred in failing to credit the treating and examining source evidence submitted in refusing to incorporate that evidence into the transcript of record.
(JS at 5-6.)
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.
THE ALJ DID NOT ERR IN DEPRECIATING THE OPINION OF DR. MAYS
After administrative denials, Plaintiff received a hearing before an ALJ on December 8, 2011. (AR 38-64.) Plaintiff testified, and was represented by a non-attorney. Testimony was also taken from a vocational expert ("VE").
On February 24, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable Decision. (AR 22-33.) Therein, the ALJ followed the familiar five step evaluation process, and at Step Two, determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments are the following: lumbar spine degenerative disc disease with evidence of right lower extremity radiculopathy; and a history of anxiety and panic disorders. (AR 24.) After finding that Plaintiff does not meet any of the Listings, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as permitting the performance of light work with certain limitations, and also limiting Plaintiff to the performance of simple, routine and repetitive tasks. (AR 26-27.) In reaching his determination as to Plaintiff's severe impairments and RFC, the ALJ considered substantial medical evidence in the record. It is the ALJ's depreciation of the opinion of treating orthopedist Dr. Mays that forms Plaintiff's first issue.
In a case such as this, where there are conflicting medical opinions among examining physicians (both treating and non-treating), it is the ALJ's obligation to provide "specific and legitimate" reasons which are supported by substantial evidence in the record, if the ALJ depreciates the opinion of a treating physician. See Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to meet this standard, arguing that he provided two inadequate reasons to reject Dr. Mays' opinions, the first being the ALJ's conclusion that Dr. Mays' opinions are "inconsistent with the objective medical evidence as a whole, ..." and the second concerning a date for assessed limitations in a questionnaire Dr. Mays completed. (See, generally, AR at 30, and 751-752.)
As the ALJ noted, Plaintiff hurt his back on the job while lifting luggage at the airport on August 9, 2009. (AR 27, citing AR 225.) The ALJ reviewed records of ensuing treatment. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff received an MRI in February 2010 which indicated disc protrusions, but there was no evidence of spinal stenosis. (AR 28, 314-317.) In October 2010 an x-ray of Plaintiff's lumbar spine indicated that there was only mild degenerative disc disease. (AR 28, radiculopathy, but no other evidence of active lumbar radiculopathy in Plaintiff's lower extremities, ...