United States District Court, E.D. California
KENNETH R. PEDRO, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CRAIG M. KELLISON, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 18) and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 19). For the reasons discussed below, the court will deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or remand and grant the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff applied for social security benefits with a protective filing date of October 28, 2010, alleging an onset of disability on October 1, 2008, due to anxiety related disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and learning disability (Certified administrative record ("CAR") 44-46, 116). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on November 15, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William C. Thompson. In a December 9, 2011, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled based on the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq ).
3. The claimant had the following severe impairments: post traumatic stress disorder, history of childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; history of substance abuse, currently in remission (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He is limited to work involving simple instructions with restricted contact with coworkers and the general public. Restricted contact is defined as the ability to work in presence of others but not be part of a work team or a cooperative work process.
6. The claimant has past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565) as a stock clerk, DOT #299.367-014, heavy, semi skilled; and construction worker I, DOT #869.664-014, heavy semi skilled work. This work is performed at a more demanding skill level than that which he is now capable of performing.
7. The claimant was born on December 29, 1972 and was 35 years old, which is defined as a "younger individual age 18-49, " on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 1, 2008, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).
(CAR 11-215). After the Appeals Council declined review on January 9, 2013, this appeal followed.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it is: (1) based on proper legal standards; and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). "Substantial evidence" is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater , 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). It is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971). The record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, must be considered and weighed. See Howard v. Heckler , 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986); Jones v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. See Hammock v. Bowen , 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a particular finding, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. See Sprague v. Bowen , 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987). Therefore, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed, see Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, see Burkhart v. Bowen , 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in several ways: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected medical opinions; and (2) the ALJ failed to properly credit plaintiff's testimony as well as third party statements.
A. MEDICAL OPINIONS
The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. See Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual, than the opinion of a non-treating professional. See id.; Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996); Winans v. Bowen , 853 F.2d 643, 647 (9th Cir. 1987). The least weight is given to the opinion of a non-examining professional. See Pitzer v. Sullivan , 908 F.2d 502, 506 & n.4 (9th Cir. 1990).
In addition to considering its source, to evaluate whether the Commissioner properly rejected a medical opinion the court considers whether: (1) contradictory opinions are in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. The Commissioner may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for "clear and convincing" reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester , 81 F.3d at 831. While a treating professional's opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by an examining professional's opinion which is supported by different independent clinical findings, the Commissioner may resolve the conflict. See Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995). A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected only for "specific and legitimate" reasons supported by substantial evidence. See Lester , 81 F.3d at 830. This test is met if the Commissioner sets out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, states her interpretation of the evidence, and makes a finding. See Magallanes v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 747, 751-55 (9th Cir. 1989). Absent specific and legitimate reasons, the Commissioner must defer to the opinion of a treating or examining professional. See Lester , 81 F.3d at 830-31. The opinion of a non-examining professional, without other evidence, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. See id. at 831. In any event, the Commissioner need not give weight to any conclusory opinion supported by minimal clinical findings. See Meanel v. Apfel , 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (rejecting treating physician's conclusory, minimally supported opinion); see also Magallanes , 881 F.2d at 751.
Here, there are no treatment records, and no opinions from treating physicians. Instead, the only records and opinions available are the result of two psychological examinations of plaintiff, and a review of those examinations by a state agency psychologist.
Dr. Cushman, who examined plaintiff on March 2, 2011, at the request of the Commissioner, found:
Kenneth Pedro will have difficulties performing detailed or complex tasks in a work setting. He does appear capable of performing simple and repetitive tasks in a work setting. He will, however, have great difficulties at this time with regular attendance and consistent participation due to excessive anxiety. He will have a difficult time working a normal workday or work week for the same reasons. Special or additional supervision does not appear needed in the work setting. He does appear capable of following simple verbal instructions from supervisors, but not complex instructions. He will have significant problems getting along with supervisors, coworkers and the general public ...