United States District Court, C.D. California
April 11, 2014
BRIAN ALLEN BACON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JAY C. GANDHI, Magistrate Judge.
Brian Allen Bacon ("Plaintiff") challenges the Social Security Commissioner's ("Defendant") decision denying his application for disability benefits. Two issues are presented for decision here:
1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") assigned appropriate weight to Plaintiff's treating physicians, Drs. Robert Yang and Glenn Niegas, ( see Joint Stip. at 5-11); and
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility, ( see id. at 20-24).
The Court addresses, and rejects, Plaintiff's contentions below.
A. The ALJ Assigned Proper Weight to Plaintiff's Treating Physicians
Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ improperly weighted the opinions of his treating physicians, Drs. Yang and Niegas. ( See Joint Stip. at 5-11.)
"Although a treating physician's opinion is generally afforded the greatest weight in disability cases, it is not binding on an ALJ with respect to the existence of an impairment or the ultimate determination of disability." Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001); see Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999) ("[T]he treating physician's opinion is not necessarily conclusive as to either a physical condition or the ultimate issue of disability.").
An ALJ may discount the treating physician's opinion when it is not supported by objective evidence. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989); Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). "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." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995)).
1. Dr. Yang's Opinion
The Court is persuaded that the ALJ properly rejected the opinion of Dr. Yang. Three reasons guide this determination.
First, the ALJ properly found that "physical examinations are entirely inconsistent with [Dr. Yang's] disabling functional capacity assessment." (Administrative Record ("AR") at 25); see Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1339-40 (9th Cir. 1988) (ALJ properly rejected treating opinion as unsupported by medical findings, personal observations, or test reports). For example, a January 2011 physical examination revealed 5/5 motor strength, intact sensation, and normal neurological examination. (AR at 559.) Imaging of the lumbar spine revealed no spinal canal stenosis. ( Id. ) Dr. William Hill, who saw Plaintiff on referral from Dr. Yang, reported similar findings. In particular, Plaintiff had good range of motion in the back, some pain on flexion and extension, and no muscle spasm. ( Id. at 24, 328.) Plaintiff also had good range of motion in the lower extremities, no focal atrophy, and negative straight leg raising test to 90 degrees, indicating no nerve root irritation. ( Id. ) Moreover, the ALJ noted that none of Dr. Yang's treatment records documented muscle weakness, sensory deficits, nerve root impingement, or use of an assistive device. ( See generally id. at 25, 316-39, 412-33.)
Second, the ALJ properly observed that Plaintiff's activities of daily living undermine the functional limitations assessed by Dr. Yang. ( Id. at 25.) Indeed, Plaintiff "chauffeur[ed] people around from his church 4-5 hours a day, every day." ( Compare id. at 69-70 (detailing Plaintiff's driving duties) with id. at 333 (Dr. Yang's opinion that Plaintiff is unable to sit for a "prolonged period of time"). This apparent inconsistency constitutes a "specific and legitimate reason" for discrediting Dr. Yang. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830 (quoting Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)).
Third, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Yang's assessment as "inconsistent with the totality of the medical evidence" and other medical source opinions in the record. (AR at 25); see Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1197 (9th Cir. 2004) ("it was permissible for the ALJ to give [treating opinion] minimal evidentiary weight, in light of the objective medical evidence and the opinions and observations of other doctors."). As the ALJ noted, examining physician Dr. Boeck found that Plaintiff was capable of lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally and sitting for 6 hours in a workday. (AR at 25, 345.) State agency reviewing physicians Drs. Brodsky and Spellman concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work with occasional postural activities. ( Id. at 25, 349-55.)
The ALJ permissibly resolved the conflicting evidence in favor of the examining and non-examining physicians' opinions because they were mutually consistent and supported by physical exam findings. ( Id. at 24-26); see Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002) ("The opinions of non-treating or non-examining physicians may also serve as substantial evidence when the opinions are consistent with independent clinical findings or other evidence in the record."); Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("to the extent that [the nontreating physician's] opinion rests on objective clinical tests, it must be viewed as substantial evidence.") While Plaintiff may have a different interpretation of the record, the ALJ's resolution was rational and supported by substantial evidence, and thus, it must be upheld. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751.
Accordingly, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Yang's opinion.
2. Dr. Niegas' Opinion
The Court is likewise convinced that the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Niegas' opinion for three reasons.
First, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Niegas' opinion as "based on [Plaintiff's] subjective complaints only." (AR at 25); see Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 605 (9th Cir. 1989) (ALJ properly rejected treating physician's report because it was premised on claimant's subjective complaints, which the ALJ properly discounted). In particular, Dr. Niegas "estimated [Plaintiff's] pain level to be an 8/10  based on Plaintiff's subjective complaints" which were properly rejected, as described below. ( See AR at 25.)
Next, the ALJ properly explained that Dr. Niegas' "opinion appears merely through a series of checked boxes and without any specific clinical  support. ( See id. at 25, 520-25); Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195 (ALJ properly rejects a treating physician's opinion when it is conclusory, brief, and unsupported); Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, 253 (9th Cir. 1996) (ALJ may reject check-off forms that do not explain the bases for their conclusions). Indeed, in his impairment questionnaire, Dr. Niegas noted symptoms including abdominal cramping and pain, but when prompted to provide the bases for his conclusions, he simply wrote "Major Depression." (AR at 25, 521-23, 664.) Major depression is not typically associated with abdominal cramping and pain, and moreover, there is only minimal evidence in the record that Plaintiff suffers from any mental impairment. ( See id. at 25, 521-23, 664-65.) Dr. Niegas thus provided no relevant explanation for his prescribed limitations.
Finally, the ALJ rejected Dr. Niegas' opinion because it lacked objective evidence. ( Id. at 25); see Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 753. Indeed, while Plaintiff visited the hospital twice for abdominal pain and constipation, his doctor reported that Plaintiff had only "slight abd[ominal] pain that resolve[d] [with bowel movement], " and not severe pain, as Plaintiff alleged. (AR at 498-500.) Further, following Plaintiff's cholecystectomy, diagnostic imaging revealed no evidence of hydronephrosis, unremarkable large bowel loops except for some constipation, no evidence of ascites, intra-abdominal retroperitoneal mass or inflammatory changes, and an unremarkable bladder. ( Id. at 629, 642.) Moreover, Plaintiff's doctor's responded to his complaints by instructing Plaintiff to increase his fiber and water intake and exercise more. ( See id. at 497, 581, 593, 639.) Such conservative treatment hardly indicates a condition that would preclude Plaintiff's ability to work. See Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 856 (9th Cir. 2001).
Accordingly, the ALJ properly rejected Dr. Niegas' opinion.
B. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Credibility
Plaintiff also insists that the ALJ improperly evaluated his credibility. ( See Joint Stip. at 20-24.)
An ALJ can reject a claimant's subjective complaints by expressing clear and convincing reasons for doing so. Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1040 (9th Cir. 2003). "General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Lester, 81 F.3d at 834.
Here, the ALJ properly discounted Plaintiff's credibility. Two reasons guide this determination.
First, the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff's daily activities are inconsistent with his allegation of complete disability. (AR at 26); see Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1113 (9th Cir. 2012) (An "ALJ may discredit a claimant's testimony when the claimant reports participation in everyday activities indicating capacities that are transferable to a work setting") (citations omitted). In this case, Plaintiff "chauffeur[ed] people around from his church 4-5 hours a day, every day" in exchange for room and board. (AR at 26, 69-70, 75.) Presumably, this activity is transferable to a job setting. Moreover, it undermines Plaintiff's allegation of total disability.
Next, the ALJ reasonably rejected Plaintiff's allegation of total disability where multiple doctors opined that Plaintiff was not disabled. ( See id. at 25-26, 94-95); Thomas, 278 F.3d at 958-59 (ALJ may consider testimony from physicians concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the symptoms of which the claimant complains). In particular, consultative examining orthopedic surgeon Dr. Boeck and State agency reviewing physicians Drs. Brodsky and Spellman found that Plaintiff was capable of performing at least light work. (AR at 95, 345, 349-55.) Examining physician Resnick, for his part, found that Plaintiff could perform medium work. ( Id. at 532.)
While Plaintiff cites to medical records wherein he complained of constipation to his doctors, symptoms alone do not prove disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a); Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1005 (9th Cir. 2005) ("under no circumstances may the existence of an impairment be established on the basis of symptoms alone.") (citation omitted). Moreover, as described above, Plaintiff's physicians typically responded to his complaints with conservative treatment. See Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 751 (9th Cir. 2007) ("[E]vidence of conservative treatment' is sufficient to discount a claimant's testimony regarding severity of an impairment.") (citation omitted); ( see, e.g., AR at 497, 581, 593, 639) (instructing Plaintiff to increase his fiber and water intake and exercise more). The ALJ's evaluation of the record was supported by substantial evidence and as such, this reason was proper. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750.
Accordingly, the ALJ properly rejected Plaintiff's credibility.
Based on the foregoing, IT IS ORDERED THAT judgment shall be entered AFFIRMING the decision of the Commissioner denying benefits.