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Raja v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

August 11, 2014

HELENA Y. RAJA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


ANDREW J. WISTRICH, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of the defendant, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB benefits on August 25, 2009, alleging that she had been disabled since March 1, 2007 due to degenerative disc disease, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), allergies, anxiety, and depression. [Administrative Record ("AR") 28, 122-123]. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [JS 2; AR 61-64, 66-70]. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted before an administrative law judge (the "ALJ") on May 25, 2011. [AR 37-55]. Plaintiff, who was not represented during the hearing, testified on her own behalf. [AR 39]. Testimony also was received from Troy Scott, a vocational expert. [AR 51].

On June 22, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision denying plaintiff's application for benefits. [AR 23-36]. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, diabetes, and obesity. [AR 28]. The ALJ determined, however, that plaintiff's impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or equal an impairment included in the Listing of Impairments (the "Listing"). [AR 29-30]. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of medium work, and therefore that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a social worker. [AR 30-32]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from March 1, 2007, the alleged disability onset date, through January 31, 2011, the date last insured. [AR 32]. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. [AR 1-7].


Plaintiff was born on February 14, 1945, and was sixty-six years old when the ALJ issued her decision. [AR 41, 122]. Plaintiff began her employment with Delta Sigma Theta Head Start/State Pre-School on March 12, 1978. [AR 321]. From 1978 until 2007, she worked at a Head Start preschool as a Family Service Coordinator, which involved working with the families of students and providing counseling workshops. [AR 321]. During the hearing, plaintiff said that she had been receiving social security retirement benefits since 2007. [AR 41]. She testified that after terminating her employment with Head Start in 2007, she had worked for the County of San Bernardino in 2009 but was fired because she "couldn't keep up with the work." [AR 42]. She also testified that she worked for Catholic Cemeteries but "had to give that up because of the migraine headaches that were so bad." [AR 42]. The documentary evidence indicates that plaintiff went back to work on January 16, 2009 and worked until April 8, 2009. [AR 123].

Standard of Review

The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin. , 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart , 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel , 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas , 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)).

Statement of Disputed Issues

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinions of her treating and examining physicians. [JS 4]. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting plaintiff's testimony. [JS 13].


Medical opinion evidence

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in disregarding the opinions of Dr. Earl Young, Dr. Paul Clement, Dr. Magda Robinson. [AR 4].

In general, "[t]he opinions of treating doctors should be given more weight than the opinions of doctors who do not treat the claimant." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)); Tonapetyan v. Halter , 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001). Although a treating physician's opinion is usually afforded the greatest weight in disability cases, a treating physician's opinion is not binding on the Commissioner with respect to the existence of an impairment or the ultimate issue of disability. Tonapetyan , 242 F.3d at 1148. When a treating physician's medical opinion as to the nature and severity of an individual's impairment is well-supported and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, that opinion must be given controlling weight. Orn , 495 F.3d at 631-632; Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2001); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *1-*2. Even when not entitled to controlling weight, "treating source medical opinions are still entitled to deference and must be weighed" in light of (1) the length of the treatment relationship; (2) the frequency of examination; (3) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (4) the supportability of the diagnosis; (5) consistency with other evidence in the record; and (6) the area of specialization. Edlund , 253 F.3d at 1157 & n.6 (quoting SSR 96-2p and citing 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527); Holohan v. Massanari , 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001).

The ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting an uncontroverted treating source opinion. Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). If contradicted by that of another doctor, a treating or examining source's opinion may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are based on substantial evidence in the record. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. ...

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