United States District Court, C.D. California
April 3, 2014
VIVIAN LEIGH CROWE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
CHARLES F. EICK, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed a Complaint on August 15, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of social security disability benefits. The parties filed a consent to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge on September 18, 2013.
Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on February 21, 2014. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on March 20, 2014. The Court has taken both motions under submission without oral argument. See L.R. 7-15; "Order, " filed August 22, 2013.
BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
Plaintiff asserted disability since November 4, 2005, based primarily on alleged fibromyalgia and alleged dermatomyositis (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 1-844). Fibromyalgia has been described as "a common, but elusive and mysterious, disease, " whose "symptoms are entirely subjective." Sarchet v. Chater , 78 F.3d 305, 306 (7th Cir. 1996). "Some people may have such a severe case of fibromyalgia as to be totally disabled from working... but most do not...." Id . Dermatomyositis is "a connective-tissue disease characterized by skin and muscle inflammation...." Skelcy v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., 2012 WL 6087492, at *____ (D.N.J. Dec. 6, 2012), appeal dismissed, No. 13-1049 (3d Cir. April 4, 2013).
An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") examined the medical record, which contains conflicting evidence from numerous physicians (A.R. 17-844). On September 6, 2011, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, a medical expert, and a vocational expert (A.R. 35-61). In a written decision dated September 30, 2011, the ALJ found Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light work (A.R. 17-27). This decision supplemented and incorporated by reference an earlier written decision issued by the same ALJ (A.R. 21; see A.R. 121-28). In denying benefits, the ALJ found less than fully credible Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding the alleged severity of her limitations (A.R. 21-22). The ALJ also discounted the opinions of three of Plaintiff's treating physicians (Drs. Freyne, Darnell and Radentz) to the extent that these physicians believed Plaintiff has greater limitations than the limitations the ALJ found to exist (A.R. 22-26). The Appeals Council denied review (A.R. 1-3).
SUMMARY OF PLAINTIFF'S CONTENTIONS
(1) The ALJ materially erred in finding less than fully credible Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding the alleged severity of her limitations; and
(2) The ALJ materially erred in discounting the opinions of Drs. Freyne, Darnell and Radentz.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. section 405(g), this Court reviews the Administration's decision to determine if: (1) the Administration's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Administration used 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 is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and quotations omitted); see also Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1067 (9th Cir. 2006).
This Court "may not affirm [the Administration's] decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence, but must also consider evidence that detracts from [the Administration's] conclusion." Ray v. Bowen , 813 F.2d 914, 915 (9th Cir. 1987) (citation and quotations omitted); see Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028 (9th Cir. 2007) (same). However, the Court cannot disturb findings supported by substantial evidence, even though there may exist other evidence supporting Plaintiff's claim. See Torske v. Richardson , 484 F.2d 59, 60 (9th Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 417 U.S. 933 (1974); Harvey v. Richardson , 451 F.2d 589, 590 (9th Cir. 1971).
After consideration of the record as a whole, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied. The Administration's findings are supported by substantial evidence and are free from material legal error.
I. The ALJ Did Not Materially Err in Finding Plaintiff's Subjective Complaints Less Than Fully Credible.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible. No material error occurred.
An ALJ's assessment of a claimant's credibility is entitled to "great weight." Anderson v. Sullivan , 914 F.2d 1121, 1124 (9th Cir. 1990); Nyman v. Heckler , 779 F.2d 528, 531 (9th Cir. 1985). Where, as here, the ALJ finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments reasonably could be expected to cause some of the symptoms of which the claimant subjectively complains, any discounting of the claimant's complaints must be supported by specific, cogent findings. See Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995); see also Berry v. Astrue , 622 F.3d 1228, 1234 (9th Cir. 2010) (reaffirming same); but see Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1282-84 (9th Cir. 1996) (indicating that ALJ must offer "specific, clear and convincing" reasons to reject a claimant's testimony where there is no evidence of malingering). As discussed below, the ALJ stated sufficient reasons for deeming Plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible.
The ALJ properly reasoned that the objective medical evidence did not support a level of symptomatology that would prevent Plaintiff from working (A.R. 21-26). Although a claimant's credibility "cannot be rejected on the sole ground that it is not fully corroborated by objective medical evidence, the medical evidence is still a relevant factor...." Rollins v. Massanari , 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001). Here, the medical evidence suggests Plaintiff's limitations have not been, and are not now, as profound as she sometimes has claimed (A.R. 36-46 (medical expert testifying in detail concerning the lack of objective medical evidence to support Plaintiff's claimed limitations); see also A.R. 411-844).
In the most recent decision, as well as in the prior decision incorporated by reference, the ALJ properly pointed out inconsistencies in Plaintiff's various reports regarding the alleged severity of her limitations (A.R. 21-22, 24-25, 127). For example, while she testified to allegedly disabling side effects from medication, she failed even to mention such alleged side effects to her treating physicians (or to the Department of Motor Vehicles) (A.R. 82-83, 127). She testified to allegedly disabling conditions that assertedly were worsening in some respects, whereas the record reflects multiple statements made by Plaintiff to doctors admitting that Plaintiff is feeling "good" or "great" and doing "better" (A.R. 47-49, 95, 98, 774, 776, 780-91, 820). Such inconsistencies can justify the rejection of a claimant's credibility. See Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 2005) ("In determining credibility, an ALJ may engage in ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, such as considering claimant's reputation for truthfulness and inconsistencies in claimant's testimony."); Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 958-59 (9th Cir. 2002) (inconsistency between the claimant's testimony and the claimant's conduct supported rejection of the claimant's credibility); Verduzco v. Apfel , 188 F.3d 1087, 1090 (9th Cir. 1999) (inconsistencies between the claimant's testimony and actions cited as a clear and convincing reason for rejecting the claimant's testimony); see also McCawley v. Astrue , 423 Fed.App'x 687, 689-90 (9th Cir. 2011) (upholding ALJ's discounting of a claimant's credibility on the basis that the claimant visited a treating physician a number of times without making complaints concerning her alleged symptoms).
The ALJ also properly emphasized the extensiveness of Plaintiff's reported activities (A.R. 22, 24, 126-27). During times she claimed to be disabled from all employment, Plaintiff admitted she was exercising regularly, walking 10 to 12 blocks (or 45 minutes) at a time and doing water aerobics (A.R. 100, 126, 443, 510). During times Plaintiff claimed to be disabled from all employment, Plaintiff attended an out of town political convention and later journeyed to the east coast (A.R. 631-70, 626). This latter trip appears inconsistent with Plaintiff's claim that she "cannot sit, stand, bend, nor walk for any long period of time" (A.R. 339). Inconsistencies between a claimant's activities and the claimant's alleged limitations can support the rejection of the claimant's credibility. See, e.g., Molina v. Astrue , 674 F.3d at 1112; Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d at 680-81; Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d at 958-59; Verduzco v. Apfel , 188 F.3d at 1090.
The ALJ also cited the relatively conservative nature of the treatment Plaintiff has received for her allegedly disabling symptoms, and the fact that she sometimes only sporadically had attended her scheduled medical appointments (A.R. 23-24, 428-37, 441-45, 467-73, 481-501). Conservative treatment or an unexplained or inadequately explained failure to seek regular treatment can sometimes justify the discounting of a claimant's credibility. See, e.g., Molina v. Astrue , 674 F.3d at 1112 (citations and quotations omitted); Parra v. Astrue , 481 F.3d 742, 750-51 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1141 (2008); Bunnell v. Sullivan , 947 F.2d 341, 346 (9th Cir. 1991); Fair v. Bowen , 885 F.2d 597, 603-04 (9th Cir. 1989).
Assuming arguendo that one or two of the reasons stated by the ALJ for discounting Plaintiff's credibility are somehow infirm, the ALJ's credibility determination nevertheless would stand. Under Carmickle v. Commissioner , 533 F.3d at 1163, the infirmity of one or two supporting reasons for an ALJ's credibility determination does not require overturning the determination if independently valid supporting reasons remain. Independently valid supporting reasons would remain in the present case.
In sum, the ALJ stated sufficient reasons to allow this Court to conclude that the ALJ discounted Plaintiff's credibility on permissible grounds. See Moisa v. Barnhart , 367 F.3d 882, 885 (9th Cir. 2004). The Court therefore defers to the ALJ's credibility determination. See Lasich v. Astrue , 252 Fed.App'x 823, 825 (9th Cir. 2007) (court will defer to ALJ's credibility determination when the proper process is used and proper reasons for the decision are provided); accord Flaten v. Secretary of Health & Human Services , 44 F.3d 1453, 1464 (9th Cir. 1995).
II. The ALJ Did Not Materially Err in Discounting the Opinions of Drs. Freyne, Darnell and Radentz.
A treating physician's conclusions "must be given substantial weight." Embrey v. Bowen , 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); see Rodriguez v. Bowen , 876 F.2d 759, 762 (9th Cir. 1989) ("the ALJ must give sufficient weight to the subjective aspects of a doctor's opinion.... This is especially true when the opinion is that of a treating physician") (citation omitted); see also Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 631-33 (9th Cir. 2007) (discussing deference owed to treating physician opinions). Even where the treating physician's opinions are contradicted,  "if the ALJ wishes to disregard the opinion[s] of the treating physician he... must make findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record." Winans v. Bowen , 853 F.2d 643, 647 (9th Cir. 1987) (citation, quotations and brackets omitted); see Rodriguez v. Bowen , 876 F.2d at 762 ("The ALJ may disregard the treating physician's opinion, but only by setting forth specific, legitimate reasons for doing so, and this decision must itself be based on substantial evidence") (citation and quotations omitted). Contrary to Plaintiff's arguments, the ALJ stated sufficient specific, legitimate reasons for discounting the contradicted opinions of Drs. Freyne, Darnell and Radentz.
As the ALJ pointed out, the opinions of each of these three doctors lacked sufficient support in clinical findings and objective medical evidence (A.R. 21-26, 36-46, 411-844). An ALJ may discount treating physicians' opinions that are not adequately supported by clinical findings and objective medical evidence. See Batson v. Commissioner , 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 875 (9th Cir. 2003); Matney v. Sullivan , 981 F.2d 1016, 1019-20 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Magallanes v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 747, 753 (9th Cir. 1989) (ALJ can meet requirement to set forth reasons to reject a treating physician's opinion by "setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof and making findings") (citations and quotations omitted).
Given the nature of fibromyalgia and dermatomyositis, the absence of objective medical evidence supporting the claimed severity of Plaintiff's functional limitations is perhaps understandable, as is the treating physicians' necessary reliance on Plaintiff's subjective complaints regarding her alleged symptomatology. However, an ALJ is not obligated to accept treating physicians' functional assessments that are predicated on a claimant's properly discounted subjective complaints. See Tonapetyan v. Halter , 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001) (ALJ is free to disregard a treating physician's opinion that is predicated on the properly discounted subjective complaints of the claimant); accord Mattox v. Commissioner , 371 Fed.App'x 740, 742 (9th Cir. 2010); Fair v. Bowen , 885 F.2d at 605. As discussed in Section I, the ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff's subjective complaints.
The record contains some dramatically conflicting evidence,  but it was the prerogative of the ALJ to resolve such conflicts. See Lewis v. Apfel , 236 F.3d 503, 509 (9th Cir. 2001). Where, as here, the evidence "is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, " the Court must uphold the administrative decision. See Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); accord Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d at 954; Sandgathe v. Chater , 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997).
For all of the reasons discussed herein,  Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied and Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.