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Benjamin v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

September 9, 2014

DANA BENJAMIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND

CHARLES F. EICK, District Judge.

Pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. section 405(g), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's and Defendant's motions for summary judgment are denied and this matter is remanded for further administrative action consistent with this Opinion.

PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed a complaint on January 8, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. The parties filed a consent to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge on March 3, 2014. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on June 19, 2014. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on July 21, 2014. The Court has taken the motions under submission without oral argument. See L.R. 7-15; Minute Order, filed January 9, 2014.

BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

Plaintiff, a former administrative assistant, asserts disability since October 8, 2008, based on "mental problems" (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 128-46, 161-63). An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff has the following severe conditions: "schizoaffective disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); history of alcohol dependency, in early remission; and personality disorder" (A.R. 21). The ALJ found that, notwithstanding these impairments: (1) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity for work at all exertion levels with certain nonexertional limitations;[1] and (2) a person with this residual functional capacity could perform work as a general clerk, clerk typist, or office helper (A.R. 23, 30-31 (adopting vocational expert testimony at A.R. 62-64)). In denying benefits, the ALJ deemed Plaintiff's subjective complaints less than fully credible (A.R. 24-28). The Appeals Council denied review (A.R. 5-7).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. section 405(g), 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 correct 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); see also Brewes v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. , 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and quotations omitted); see Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006).

DISCUSSION

I. The ALJ Materially Erred in the Analysis of Plaintiff's Credibility.

When an ALJ finds that a claimant's medically determinable impairments reasonably could be expected to cause the symptoms alleged, the ALJ may not discount the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of the symptoms without making "specific, cogent" findings, supported in the record, to justify discounting such testimony. Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995); see also Rashad v. Sullivan , 903 F.2d 1229, 1231 (9th Cir. 1990); Varney v. Secretary , 846 F.2d 581, 584 (9th Cir. 1988).[2] Generalized, conclusory findings do not suffice. See Moisa v. Barnhart , 367 F.3d 882, 885 (9th Cir. 2004) (the ALJ's credibility findings "must be sufficiently specific to allow a reviewing court to conclude the ALJ rejected the claimant's testimony on permissible grounds and did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony") (internal citations and quotations omitted); Holohan v. Massanari , 246 F.3d 1195, 1208 (9th Cir. 2001) (the ALJ must "specifically identify the testimony [the ALJ] finds not to be credible and must explain what evidence undermines the testimony"); Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996) ("The ALJ must state specifically which symptom testimony is not credible and what facts in the record lead to that conclusion."); see also Social Security Ruling 96-7p.

In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms" (A.R. 25) (emphasis added). However, the ALJ characterized Plaintiff's testimony regarding the severity of her symptoms and limitations as "greater than expected in light of other statements and the objective evidence of record, " given: (1) Plaintiff's "largely normal" level of daily activities; (2) Plaintiff's receipt of unemployment compensation during the alleged disability period; and (3) Plaintiff's "limited" treatment records showing (a) no evidence of treatment for Plaintiff's psychiatric condition from the alleged onset date until Plaintiff was hospitalized in October of 2010, (b) Plaintiff's refusal to attend group psychotherapy sessions and insistence on "only a few individual sessions, " (c) no evidence that Plaintiff actually received psychotherapy, (d) gaps in Plaintiff's psychiatric treatment, (e) noncompliance with medications because Plaintiff would forget to take them at times, and (f) evidence suggesting that Plaintiff only contacted the mental health clinic when she ran out of medication, and would do so by walk-in visits where she showed no signs of psychotic or manic behavior (A.R. 24-28).[3]

Turning first to the treatment records, a limited course of treatment sometimes can justify the rejection of a claimant's testimony, at least where the testimony concerns physical problems. See, e.g., Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 681 (9th Cir. 2005) (lack of consistent treatment such as where there was a three to four month gap in treatment properly considered in discrediting claimant's back pain testimony); Meanel v. Apfel , 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 1999) (in assessing the credibility of a claimant's pain testimony, the Administration properly may consider the claimant's failure to request treatment and failure to follow treatment advice) (citing Bunnell v. Sullivan , 947 F.2d 341, 346 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc)); Matthews v. Shalala , 10 F.3d 678, 679-80 (9th Cir. 1993) (permissible credibility factors in assessing pain testimony include limited treatment and minimal use of medications); see also Johnson v. Shalala , 60 F.3d 1428, 1434 (9th Cir. 1995) (absence of treatment for back pain during half of the alleged disability period, and evidence of only "conservative treatment" when the claimant finally sought treatment, sufficient to discount claimant's testimony). However, the Ninth Circuit has observed that "it is a questionable practice to chastise one with a mental impairment for the exercise of poor judgment in seeking rehabilitation." Nguyen v. Chater , 100 F.3d 1462, 1465 (9th Cir. 1996) (citations and quotations omitted); see also Garrison v. Colvin, ___ F.3d ___ , 2014 WL 3397218, at *23, n.24 (9th Cir. July 14, 2014) (quoting Nguyen v. Chater ); Regennitter v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. , 166 F.3d 1294, 1299-1300 (9th Cir. 1999) (same; also noting that mental illness is notoriously underreported); Martinez v. Colvin, 2014 WL 3809048, at *12 (D. Ariz. Aug. 1, 2014) (finding noncompliance with mental health treatment not to be an appropriate basis for the ALJ to discount claimant's credibility); Rosas v. Colvin, 2014 WL 3736531, at *11 (C.D. Cal. July 28, 2014) (claimant's limited treatment for mental illness not by itself a clear and convincing reason for rejecting claimant's credibility); Etter v. Colvin, 2014 WL 2931145, at *2-*3 (C.D. Cal. June 26, 2014) (finding ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment not supported by substantial evidence where ALJ gave "little" weight to the psychiatric consultative examiner's opinion and, in doing so, highlighted that the claimant had not received mental health treatment; citing, inter alia, Nguyen v. Chater ); accord Pate-Fires v. Astrue , 564 F.3d 935, 945 (8th Cir. 2009) ("a mentally ill person's noncompliance with psychiatric medications can be, and usually is, the result of the mental impairment itself and, therefore, neither willful nor without a justifiable excuse") (internal citations and quotations omitted); Kangail v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 627, 630 (7th Cir. 2006) ("mental illness in general... may prevent the sufferer from taking her prescribed medicines or otherwise submitting to treatment") (internal citations omitted).

Plaintiff, who was 36 years old at the time of the hearing, testified that she quit high school because she ran away, tried to kill herself, and went to a mental hospital, adding "I went to mental hospitals back then" (A.R. 41). Plaintiff testified that she stopped working due to problems with anxiety and nervousness, she had missed approximately four days of work per month, and she was terminated because of her attitude with clients and because she would not, or could not, "dress up" (A.R. 43-44). Plaintiff said that she never sought treatment for issues dealing with her work behavior because she did not have insurance when she lost her job and thought she "could deal with it on [her] own" (A.R. 45). Plaintiff also did not undergo ...


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