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Wyatt v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. California

June 16, 2014

JAMES I. WYATT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


NITA L. STORMES, Magistrate Judge

James I. Wyatt (Plaintiff) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Defendant) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits. (Dkt. No. 1.) This case is referred for a Report and Recommendation on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). After careful consideration of 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.

I. Background

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 Soc. Sec. 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, the second step is to determine 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, step five considers whether the applicant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy. 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); 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) (alteration in original).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff James Wyatt applied for Social Security disability benefits on October 20, 2009. AR 27. His application was denied on January 11, 2010, and that decision was affirmed on request for reconsideration on May 27, 2010. AR 86, 93. Plaintiff then requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). AR 100. Based on testimony given at the hearing and documentary evidence in the record, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. AR 23-42. Plaintiff's application for review by the Social Security Administration Appeals Council was denied, finalizing the ALJ's decision. AR 6. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision. (Dkt. No. 1.)

C. Relevant Documentary Evidence

Plaintiff suffered a workplace back injury in 2005 while lifting gas canisters. AR 318. He reported to the emergency room and received lower back injections for pain relief and was discharged. Id. Following physical therapy, he returned to his normal work duty for three years until back pain forced his leave on temporary total disability. AR 318-19. From 2006 to 2009, Plaintiff's primary doctor was Dr. Bruce Van Dam. AR 319, 444. Upon determining Plaintiff would require a surgery he no longer performed, Dr. Van Dam recommended Plaintiff obtain a new primary treating physician. AR 444. Plaintiff chose neurosurgeon Dr. Lokesh Tantuwaya. AR 318. He underwent an unsuccessful back surgery on January 4, 2010, and a repeat back surgery on December 8, 2010. AR 335, 579. Plaintiff's ability to work following a recovery period from the second surgery is now disputed.[1]

1. Dr. Van Dam: Primary Treating Physician, 2006-2009

Dr. Van Dam was Plaintiff's primary treating physician through 2009, prior to both back surgeries. The diagnosis in a February 2009 report was disk herniation at L3-4.[2] AR 452. As the treating physician, Dr. Van Dam noted Plaintiff was in severe pain and prescribed a variety of narcotic analgesics such as Percocet and Oxycontin. See, e.g., AR 444, 452. In April 2009, Dr. Van Dam informed Plaintiff he would no longer provide treatment.[3] AR 445.

2. Dr. Tantuwaya: Primary Treating Physician, 2009-2011

Dr. Tantuwaya was Plaintiff's treating physician for both back surgeries and his medical reports were given significant weight in the ALJ's decision to discredit Plaintiff's testimony after April 12, 2011. AR 36. Upon assuming care for Plaintiff in 2009, Dr. Tantuwaya diagnosed Plaintiff with L3-4 disc protrusion with radiculopathy.[4] AR 467. His recommended treatment was L3-4 laminectomy and discectomy.[5] ...

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