United States District Court, C.D. California
KATHLEEN H. HOFSTROM, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION
ALKA SAGAR, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed a complaint on December 19, 2012, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint on July 18, 2013. On August 22, 2013, the matter was transferred and referred to the current Magistrate Judge. The parties thereafter consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. On November 6, 2013, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") setting forth their respective positions on Plaintiff's claim. The Court has taken this matter under submission without oral argument. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; L.R. 7-15; See "Order, " filed December 21, 2012.
BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
Plaintiff, a former nurse and phlebotomist, asserts disability since October 21, 2007, based on alleged physical and mental impairments (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 11). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") examined the records and heard testimony from Plaintiff, and a vocational expert (A.R. 34-62). The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff has a severe medically determinable impairment, namely anticardiolipin antibodies syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, status post inferior vena cava filter placement, depressive disorder NOS, and cognitive disorder NOS (A.R. 11-12); (2) Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment (A.R. 13-14); (3) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with some restrictions (A.R. 14-20); (4) Plaintiff lacks the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past relevant work (A.R. 21); and (5) Plaintiff is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (A.R. 22). The Appeals Council considered additional information but denied review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Administration. (A.R. 1, 5). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's Mental Residual Functional Capacity findings are not supported by substantial evidence. (See Joint Stip. at 5-9).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 proper 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 more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Jamerson v. Chater , 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997). It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id . (citing Jamerson , 112 F.3d at 1066; Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, "a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.'" Aukland v. Massanari , 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 1997) (quoting Penny v. Sullivan , 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993)). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the [Commissioner's] conclusion, [a] court may not substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Reddick , 157 F.3d at 720-21 (citing Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995).
Where, as here, the Appeals Council considered additional material but denied review, the additional material becomes part of the Administrative Record for purposes of the Court's analysis. See Brewes v. Commissioner , 682 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012) ("[W]hen the Appeals Council considers new evidence in deciding whether to review a decision of the ALJ, that evidence becomes part of the administrative record, which the district court must consider when reviewing the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence") (expressly adopting Ramirez v. Shalala , 8 F.3d 1449, 1452 (9th Cir. 1993)); Taylor v. Commissioner , 659 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2011) (courts may consider evidence presented for the first time to the Appeals Council "to determine whether, in light of the record as a whole, the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and was free of legal error"); Penny v. Sullivan , 2 F.3d 953, 957 n.7 (9th Cir. 1993) ("the Appeals Council considered this information and it became part of the record we are required to review as a whole"); see generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970(b), 416.1470(b).
A. Applicable Law
Three types of physicians may offer opinions in Social Security cases: "(1) those who treat[ed] the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine[d] but d[id] not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine[d] nor treat[ed] the claimant (non-examining physicians)." Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than the opinion of a doctor who examined but did not treat the claimant, and an examining physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than that of a nonexamining physician. Id .; see also Embrey v. Bowen , 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988) (treating physician's conclusions "must be given substantial weight"). The ALJ may only reject a treating or examining physician's uncontradicted medical opinion based on "clear and convincing reasons." Lester , 81 F.3d at 830-31. Where such an opinion is contradicted, however, it may only be rejected for "specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id . The opinion of a nonexamining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence justifying the rejection of an examining physician's opinion.
B. Relevant Facts
Two doctors evaluated Plaintiff's mental and emotional limitations. On February 11, 2010, Dr. Robin Campbell, a clinical psychologist, conducted a consultative psychological examination. (A.R. 598-603). She reported that Plaintiff is able to do household chores, run errands, shop, and cook. (A.R. 600). Plaintiff denied suffering from depression or anxiety but said she is "more forgetful, spacey, ' and fatigued." (A.R. 599).
Dr. Campbell found that there was "no evidence of memory impairment" (A.R. 600), and that [Plaintiff] had no difficulties in attention. Her concentration appeared to be adequate for conversation and time-limited assessment tasks (A.R. 601). Dr. Campbell concluded that Plaintiff would have "no impairment in understanding remembering, and carrying out short, simple instructions... is unimpaired in her ability to make judgements on simple, work-related decisions... mild to moderate difficulty in relating appropriately to the public, supervisors, and co-workers secondary to depression...[and Plaintiff's] ability to withstand the stress and changes associated with an 8-hour workday and day-to-day work activities is moderately impaired." (A.R. 602). Finally, the diagnostic testing ...