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Miller v. Astrue

United States District Court, S.D. California

June 9, 2014



NITA L. STORMES, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Steve Jason Miller ("Plaintiff") brings this action under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") decision to deny his claim for Disabled Adult Child benefits. (Dkt. No. 1) This case was referred for a report and recommendation on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After considering the moving papers, the administrative record, and the applicable law, the Court RECOMMENDS that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, and that Defendant's cross motion for summary judgment be GRANTED.


A. Evaluation of a Disability Under the Social Security Act

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, an applicant must show that he or she cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d). An individual claiming disability must prove he was permanently disabled or subject to a condition which became disabling prior to his last insured date. Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995). The Social Security regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation procedure for determining whether an applicant is disabled under this standard. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); Batson v. Comm'r of the Social Security Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1194 (9th Cir. 2004).

First, it must be determined whether the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If not, then it must be determined whether the applicant is suffering from a "severe" impairment within the meaning of the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the impairment is severe, the third step is to ascertain whether it meets or equals one of the "Listing of Impairments" in the Social Security regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the applicant's impairment meets or equals a Listing, he or she will be found disabled. Id. If the impairment does not meet or equal a Listing, it is then determined whether the applicant retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his or her past relevant work (step four). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the applicant cannot perform past relevant work, it must be considered whether the applicant can perform other work (step five). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

While the applicant carries the burden of proving eligibility at steps one through four, the burden at step five rests on the agency. Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1180 (9th Cir. 2003). Applicants not disqualified at step five are eligible for disability benefits. Id. In making the determinations, "the ALJ [Administrative Law Judge] has a special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant's interests are considered." Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for Disabled Adult Child disability insurance benefits on June 20, 2011. Administrative Record ("AR") 84. He alleges his condition rendered him disabled on July 1, 1989. AR 32. The application was initially denied on September 6, 2011, and denied again upon reconsideration on November 18, 2011. AR 84-85. On December 2, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing. AR 100.

An ALJ held a hearing on August 16, 2012. AR 27-83. Plaintiff, three doctors, and a vocational expert testified at the hearing. Id. Based on the testimony and documentary evidence, the ALJ issued a decision denying the applications for benefits. AR 13-21. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became final. AR 4.

Plaintiff filed this complaint for judicial review of Defendant's final decision. (Dkt. No. 1.) He argues the ALJ committed reversible error by improperly discrediting the testimony and opinions of three doctors. (Dkt. No. 21-1 at 9-11.[1]) He asks this Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for calculation of benefits or for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 11.

C. Relevant Documentary Evidence

On July 28, 1989, Dr. Allan Rabin admitted Plaintiff, then eighteen years old, to VillaView Community Hospital. AR 413-14. Dr. Rabin had been called by Plaintiff's mother, who reported Plaintiff was being physically abusive towards her and had locked her out of the house. AR 413. Plaintiff was agitated, had not been sleeping, had episodes of euphoria and depression, and was experiencing racing thoughts. Id. Dr. Rabin diagnosed Plaintiff as having an "acute manic episode." AR 414. The next morning, Plaintiff escaped VillaView by climbing a fence. AR 429. He returned home, and was brought to Mesa Vista Hospital the same day. AR 237. Upon admission, he was noted to be emotionally labile and somewhat agitated, and he reported having "depressive and specific suicidal thoughts." AR 239. While at Mesa Vista, Plaintiff experienced some visual hallucinations, which were related to his medications. AR 240. During the hospitalization, Dr. Rabin observed that Plaintiff was making fair social contact with the other patients and played a game of basketball with another patient. AR 239. By the time Plaintiff was discharged, approximately two weeks after his admission, Plaintiff was functioning on the open unit, "looking forward to outpatient treatment, " and was thinking about going away to college in the fall. AR 240.

While hospitalized, Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Raymond Fidaleo. AR 242-245. Plaintiff presented as "extremely sedated" during the evaluation with rambling speech, and reported visual and auditory hallucinations. AR 243-44. Dr. Fidaleo concluded Plaintiff was experiencing a bipolar manic episode. AR 244. Plaintiff was later evaluated at the hospital by Dr. James McClure, Jr. AR 246. He determined that Plaintiff had bipolar affective disorder. Id. In support of this conclusion, Dr. Fidaleo cited Plaintiff's hallucinations and "transient paranoid ideation, " racing thoughts, lability of mood, family history, and the fact that he was "improving rapidly on lithium and neuroleptic medication[.]" Id. Dr. McClure agreed with continuing the current treatment "until his moods are essentially stabilized." Id. He anticipated "continued rapid improvement." Id.

Dr. J. Mark Thompson was Plaintiff's psychiatrist from fall 1989 to spring 1991. AR 248, 292. He treated Plaintiff for bipolar disorder and used several medications, but the response to treatment was limited. AR 292. In a letter dated March 6, 2012, Dr. Thompson indicated that when Plaintiff was under his care he "was very limited in his capacity to work or apply himself to academic work." Id.

On April 7, 1997, Dr. Rabin wrote a letter to Grossmont College stating he was Plaintiff's treating physician, and verified that Plaintiff was "mentally fit and competent[, ]" appeared stable, and "has the capacity to function as an allied health professional." AR 471. A 1998 treatment note from Dr. Rabin indicates he encouraged Plaintiff to pursue the prosthesis field. AR 447. On January 10, 1999, Dr. Rabin wrote a letter to HealthSouth on Plaintiff's behalf stating that he had been treating Plaintiff for Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and he believed there were no restrictions or limitations on Plaintiff's employment. AR 470.

On March 8, 2012, Dr. Rabin submitted a letter stating that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder prevented him from working prior to his twenty-second birthday. AR 293. Dr. Rabin described symptoms such as agitation, inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, rapid and drastic mood changes, and inappropriate and dysfunctional behavior patterns. Id. He stated Plaintiff's work history between 1989 and 1999 was "brief and fleeting or unsuccessful, " and concluded by stating "from June of 1989 through the mid ...

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