United States District Court, C.D. California
LASHARA HAWKINS, Guardian Ad Litem of J.D.H., a minor, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARGARET A. NAGLE, Magistrate Judge.
Lashara Hawkins ("plaintiff"), the mother of J.D.H., a minor ("claimant"), filed a Complaint on March 18, 2013, seeking review of the denial of claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income Disability benefits. ("SSI"). (ECF No. 6.) On May 2, 2013, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (ECF No. 12.) The parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") on December 12, 2013, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits, or alternatively remanding the matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings; and the Commissioner requests that her decision be affirmed. (ECF No. 20.) The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
On May 17, 2010, an application for SSI was filed on behalf of claimant. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 24.) Plaintiff asserts that claimant, who was born on February 2, 2004 ( id. 27),  has been disabled since May 1, 2010, due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and behavioral problems ( id. 24, 132).
After the Commissioner denied the claimant's claim initially, plaintiff requested a hearing. (A.R. 24.) On August 25, 2011, plaintiff and claimant appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert A. Evans (the "ALJ"). ( Id. 24, 38.) On September 9, 2011, the ALJ denied the claim ( id. 24-34), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision ( id. 1-5). That decision is now at issue in this action.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
In his September 9, 2011, decision, the ALJ found that claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 17, 2010, the alleged onset date of his disability. (A.R. 27.)
An individual under age 18 will be considered disabled if he or she has a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations...." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The regulations prescribe a three-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a child's impairment(s) result in marked and severe functional limitations. (A.R. 24-26.) The impairment(s) functionally equal the listings, and the child will be found disabled, if a child's impairments result in: "marked" limitations, i.e., limitations that seriously interfere with the child's ability to perform activities, in two domains; or an "extreme" limitation, i.e., a limitation that very seriously interferes with the child's ability to perform activities, in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.92a(d).
The ALJ determined that claimant has the severe impairment of ADHD. (A.R. 27.) The ALJ reviewed: the record, including objective medical evidence, and other relevant evidence from medical sources; information from other sources, such as teachers, family, or friends; claimant's statements (including statements from claimant's parents or other caregivers); and any other relevant evidence in the case record, including how claimant has functioned over time and in all settings, including home, school, and community. ( Id. ) The ALJ specifically found that claimant had the following functional limitations: less than marked limitation in acquiring and using information; marked limitation in attending and completing tasks; no limitation in interacting and relating to others; no limitation in moving about and manipulating objects; no limitation in the ability to care for himself; and no limitation in health and physical well being. ( Id. 27, 30-34.)
The ALJ determined that claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart p, appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.924, 416.925, 416.926) ( id. 27), and, therefore, is not disabled ( id. 34).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). "While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice." Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).
Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs. , 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).
The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn , 495 F.3d at 630 (citing Connett , 340 F.3d at 874). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination....'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Comm'r , 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch , 400 F.3d at 679.
Plaintiff alleges two sources of error. First, she claims that the ALJ failed to properly consider and evaluate the opinion of claimant's treating physician, Dr. Michelle Pietryga. (Joint Stip at 3.) Second, plaintiff claims the ALJ failed to consider the opinion of a lay witness, claimant's teacher at or about the time of the hearing, Mrs. Brustuen. ( Id. at 3, 15.)
I. The ALJ Erred By Failing To Properly Consider The Opinions Of Dr. Pietryga.
A. Legal Standard
An ALJ is obligated to take into account all medical opinions of record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(b). It is the responsibility of the ALJ to resolve conflicts in medical testimony and analyze evidence. Magallanes v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). In the hierarchy of physician opinions considered in assessing a social security claim, "[g]enerally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's ...