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Sevier v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 25, 2014

TERESA A. SEVIER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


GARY S. AUSTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Teresa Sevier ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is pending before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.[2]


On July 17, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning May 15, 2007.[3] AR 121-124. The Disability Determination Services Division, California Department of Health and Human Services, denied her application initially on September 6, 2008, and upon reconsideration on December 11, 2008. AR 56-59; 64-68. Subsequently, on February 16, 2010, a Social Security Administration administrative law judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on Plaintiff's claim. AR 22-53. Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. AR 22-53. In a decision dated April 9, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 10-17. On September 1, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-3. Plaintiff then commenced this action in District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).


Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is supported by substantial evidence and (2) it applies the correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007).

"Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). It is "relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Id.


Plaintiff raises two substantive issues in this appeal. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the treatment and diagnostic reports of a treating psychiatrist, Dr. Chua, regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments. Doc. 14, Pltff.'s Op. Br., 16-19. Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Id. at 19-22. Plaintiff contends that these errors in the ALJ's analysis were harmful to Plaintiff in terms of the ultimate determination of non-disability. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ properly assessed Dr. Chua's treatment reports, and gave adequate reasons for finding Plaintiff not fully credible. Doc. 15, Deft.'s Opp. Br., 6-12.


1. The ALJ Properly Found Dr. Chua's February 12, 2010 Diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia to be Non-Severe

(a) Overview of Medical Evidence Regarding Plaintiff's Mental Impairments

At the ALJ hearing, Plaintiff testified that the primary factor preventing her from working was her "mental issues, " which have been diagnosed as "[p]ost-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks." AR 26.

At the time she filed for SSI benefits in July 2008, Plaintiff, who was 43 years old, did not have a long history of mental health impairments or treatment. AR 192. Rather, the record reveals that Plaintiff first complained of depression and anxiety in September 2007, after her husband of 29 years was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer (Plaintiff's husband died in May 2008).[4] AR 218-220. Although Plaintiff was seen by a psychiatrist (Dr. Chua) on only two occasions (October 2, 2009, and February 12, 2010), she also sought treatment for depression and anxiety from her primary-care physicians. AR 460, 496.

Plaintiff saw at least three licensed clinical social workers ("LCSWs")-David Sandoval, Darlene Thompson, and Chris Bitonti- for mental health counseling; however Darlene Thompson and Chris Bitonti each saw Plaintiff only once. AR 449, 450. No treating psychiatrist, physician, or LCSW assessed any permanent functional limitations for Plaintiff on account of her mental impairments.[5]

Non-examining state-agency psychologist Harvey Bilik, Psy.D., completed a Psychiatric Review Technique form on September 19, 2008. AR 279. Dr. Bilik found that Plaintiff had severe impairments that were not expected to last for twelve months. AR 279. Specifically, Plaintiff suffered from depression-not otherwise specified and anxiety-not otherwise specified. AR 282; 283. Dr. Bilik concluded that Plaintiff had mild limitations in her activities of daily living, in social functioning, and in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, but no episodes of decompensation. AR 287. Dr. Bilik noted Plaintiff had become anxious and depressed after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. AR 289. Dr. Bilik noted that prior to her husband's death, Plaintiff's psychiatric symptoms appeared relatively well-controlled with medication, but that she had become grief stricken after he died in May 2008. AR 289. Dr. Bilik noted that with medications and time, it did not "appear unreasonable to expect that functional limitations will be no more than mild by 07-01-09." AR 289.

On September 22, 2008, Charles Fracchia, M.D., a non-examining state-agency physician affirmed Dr. Bilik's finding that there was no severe impairment for a twelve month period. AR 292. On December 8, 2008, non-examining state-agency physician James Glaser, M.D., completed a case analysis. AR 301. Dr. Glaser also affirmed Dr. Bilik's opinion that Plaintiff's mental impairments would be non-severe by July 2009. AR 302.

In sum, the record is devoid of any medical evidence indicating that Plaintiff's mental impairments permanently limited her ability to work in any way.

(b) Analysis

Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Chua, gave conflicting diagnoses for Plaintiff's mental impairment based on two separate consultations four months apart, on October 2, 2009 and February 12, 2010, respectively. AR 460; 496. On October 2, 2009, Dr. Chua diagnosed Plaintiff with dysthymic disorder and bereavement.[6] AR 460. On February 12, 2010, Dr. Chua diagnosed Plaintiff with major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia. AR 496. ...

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