United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSSMOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [Re: ECF Nos. 19, 21]
LUCY H. KOH, District Judge.
Plaintiff Jose Castanon ("Castanon") appeals a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, which have been fully briefed. See ECF Nos. 19, 21, 22. Upon consideration of the briefing and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Castanon's motion and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion.
Castanon was born in Mexico on December 7, 1966; he spent his childhood there before moving to the United States in 1982. Admin. R. ("AR") 91, 865. He has past relevant work as a sheet metal worker, spray painter, and construction worker. AR 103-11, 903. On April 2, 2009, he filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with a protective filing date of March 17, 2009. AR 71-73A, 91. He claimed disability as of April 4, 2006,  at the age of thirty-nine, following a work-related injury in which his left palm was punctured by a nail gun. AR 91, 894. Specifically, he claimed that he suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy,  high blood pressure, and depression; he also indicated an inability to use his left hand following surgery on that hand. AR 47, 113.
Castanon's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 47, 53. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on January 11, 2011. AR 19, 862-914. On May 9, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Castanon was not disabled and thus was not entitled to benefits. AR 19-36. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 7. Castanon now seeks judicial review of the denial of benefits.
I. LEGAL STANDARD
A. Standard of Review
This Court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995). In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance - it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.
B. Standard for Determining Disability
Disability benefits are available under Title II of the Social Security Act when an eligible claimant is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment... which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
"ALJs are to apply a five-step sequential review process in determining whether a claimant qualifies as disabled." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009). At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is performing "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds to step two. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled; if so, the analysis proceeds to step three. Id. At step three, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to do his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds to step five. Id. At step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can do other jobs in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled; if not, the claimant is disabled. Id. "The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five." Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222.
The ALJ determined that Castanon's earnings records showed that he had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2011. AR 19. At step one, the ALJ found that Castanon had not performed substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of April 4, 2006. AR 21. At step two, the ALJ found that Castanon had a severe combination of impairments consisting of "[s]tatus post trauma injury to the left hand; status post carpal tunnel release of the left hand; and myofascial pain in the left upper extremity"; however, the ALJ found that Castanon's claimed mental impairment of adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood caused only minimal limitation and thus was non-severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Castanon's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment in the Listing. AR 23. At step four, the ALJ determined that Castanon could not perform his past relevant work. AR 34.
The ALJ found that Castanon has the RFC to perform light work with the restriction that "[t]he claimant is limited to using the left arm as an assist to the right upper extremity. The left arm can be used as an assist one third of the time." AR 23. The ALJ found no limitation with respect to Castanon's dominant right upper extremity. Id. Based upon this RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded at step five that Castanon could do jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 35. Castanon challenges the ALJ's step five determination, asserting that the ALJ erred by: failing to give sufficient weight to the opinions of his treating physicians; failing to consider his mental limitation of depression when determining his RFC; and making unsupported factual findings regarding his education.
A. Medical Evidence
When evaluating medical evidence, an ALJ must give a treating physician's opinion "substantial weight." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th Cir. 2009). "When evidence in the record contradicts the opinion of a treating physician, the ALJ must present specific and legitimate reasons' for discounting the treating physician's opinion, supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). When a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another physician, the ALJ must provide "clear and convincing" reasons for disbelieving the treating physician. Id. at 1228 n.8.
With respect to Castanon's physical limitations, the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of consulting physician Woodrow Janese, M.D. and less weight to the opinions of treating physician Hessam Noralahi, M.D. and examining physicians Allen Kaisler-Meza, M.D. and Jaehoon Chung, M.D. AR 23-31. With respect to Castanon's mental limitations, the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of examining psychiatrist Antoinette Acenas, M.D. and less weight to the opinion of treating psychiatrist Tahami, D.O. AR 31-34. Because the ALJ relied upon other physicians' opinions as bases for discounting the treating physicians' opinions, the ALJ need only articulate "specific and legitimate" reasons for doing so, supported by substantial evidence. See Bray, 554 F.3d at 1228.
The record evidence regarding Castanon's limitations is summarized below:
1. Physical Limitations
a. Eric Chan, M.D. (Treating Physician)
Castanon saw Dr. Eric Chan in April 2006 following his initial emergency room visit on the date of the injury to his left hand. AR 214. Dr. Chan diagnosed possible injury to the left carpal tunnel with possible median nerve and flexor tendon injuries. Id. He recommended surgery. Id. During the surgery, which was performed on April 20, 2006, Dr. Chan found that the median nerve and flexor tendon were intact; the tendon ...