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McCauley v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 19, 2014



KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act").[1] In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from March 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, through the date of the final administrative decision. (ECF No. 14.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 15.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 16.)

For the reasons that follow, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and enters judgment for the Commissioner.


Plaintiff was born on February 20, 1961, obtained a high school education and took some college coursework, and previously worked as a letter carrier and commercial truck driver.[2] (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 21, 34, 36-38.) On September 26, 2010, plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that he was unable to work as of March 2, 2008. (AT 15, 110-13.) On October 21, 2010, plaintiff filed a separate application for SSI alleging the same onset date as his DIB application. (AT 15, 114-19.) On February 16, 2011, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 15, 66-70.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the determination was affirmed on May 6, 2011. (AT 76-81.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which took place on January 11, 2012, and at which plaintiff (represented by counsel) testified. (AT 34-58, 85-92.)

In a decision dated February 9, 2012, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from March 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 15-22.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on June 10, 2013. (AT 1.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on August 5, 2013, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)


Plaintiff raises the following four issues: (1) whether the ALJ failed to properly consider Dr. Martin's opinion in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); (2) whether the ALJ erred in not finding plaintiff's diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and liver disease to be "severe impairments" at Step Two; (3) whether the ALJ improperly considered plaintiff's obesity under the standards articulated by Social Security Ruling 02-1p ("SSR 02-1p"); and (4) whether the ALJ made an improper credibility determination with respect to plaintiff's testimony.


The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue , 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).


A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[3] At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 2, 2008, plaintiff's alleged onset date. (AT 17.) At Step Two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "obesity, and sleep apnea." (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") for the relevant time period as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except, due to his sleep apnea, he is not able to perform any work near hazards (machinery, heights, etc.).

(AT 18.)

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 21.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed, including the representative occupations of collator operator, cleaner, housekeeping, and photocopy machine operator. (AT 22.)

Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act from March 2, 2008, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id.)

B. Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations

1. Whether the ALJ Failed to Properly Consider Dr. Martin's Opinion in Assessing Plaintiff's RFC

First, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by crediting the opinion of Dr. Martin, an examining physician, "great evidentiary weight" in support of the ALJ's RFC determination that plaintiff is capable of performing light work, albeit with the restriction that he avoid certain occupational hazards, because the ALJ failed to consider Dr. Martin's statement that placing plaintiff on a "[t]emporary restriction from the workplace pending better control of sleep apnea symptoms seems reasonable and important" when coming to that conclusion. (AT 291.)

The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari , 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and ...

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