United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARGARET A. NAGLE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed a Complaint on January 25, 2013, seeking review of a decision by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") that plaintiff ceased to be eligible for a period of disability ("POD") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on May 1, 2010. On February 27, 2013, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on January 16, 2014, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, alternatively, remanding for further administrative proceedings; and the Commissioner requests that her decision be affirmed or, alternatively, remanded for further administrative proceedings. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
On June 24, 2002, plaintiff, filed an application for a POD and DIB in which she alleged an inability to work since September 8, 1998. ( See Administrative Record ("A.R.") 110.) By decision dated June 12, 2004, Administrative Law Judge Barry S. Brown ("ALJ Brown") determined that plaintiff, who was born on March 12, 1963 ( id. 34), had the following severe impairments: "Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Moderate without psychotic features[;] Generalized Anxiety Disorder[;] second degree burns to both feet and ankles[;] low back lumbar radiculopathy and neck radiculopathy." ( Id. 111.) ALJ Brown found that plaintiff's impairments precluded her from performing even sedentary activity on a sustained and reliable basis from September 8, 1998, plaintiff's alleged onset date of disability, through June 14, 2000. ( Id. 113.) ALJ Brown also found that from June 15, 2000, through June 12, 2004, the date of ALJ Brown's decision, plaintiff's Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder met the criteria of Medical Listings "12.04 [Affective Disorder] and 12.06 [Anxiety Disorder, ]" respectively. ( Id. ) Accordingly, ALJ Brown determined that plaintiff had been under a disability since September 8, 1998, her alleged onset date of disability, and was entitled to POD and DIB. ( Id. )
The Social Security Administration (the "SSA") re-evaluated plaintiff's eligibility for benefits in 2010, and in a decision dated May 18, 2010, determined that plaintiff had medically improved as of May 1, 2010. (A.R. 12-25.) The SSA determined that plaintiff's benefits should cease on the last day of July 2010. ( Id. 125.) Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the SSA's determination. ( Id. 129.) After a disability hearing by a Disability Hearing Officer, the SSA's "determination was upheld upon reconsideration." ( Id. 23, 130-37.) Plaintiff appealed this determination. ( Id. 23.)
On June 15, 2011, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Helen E. Hesse (the "ALJ"). (A.R. 52, 59-64, 73-80.) Vocational expert Alan Boroskin ("VE") and two medical experts - Dr. Samuel Landau, a physician, and Dr. Joseph Malancharuvil, a board-certified clinical psychologist - also testified. ( Id. 52, 55-59 (Dr. Landau's testimony), 64-73 (Dr. Malancharuvil's testimony), 80-83 (VE's testimony).)
On August 4, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding, inter alia, that plaintiff had medically improved as of May 1, 2010, and as a result, her disability ended as of May 1, 2010. (A.R. 23-36.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. ( Id. 1-6). That decision is now at issue in this action.
SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION
In her August 4, 2011 decision, the ALJ found that, following ALJ Brown's 2004 decision awarding benefits, plaintiff had developed obesity but had otherwise continued to have the same severe impairments, namely "depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; lumber and cervical disorder; history of second-degree burns." (A.R. 25, 28.) However, the ALJ determined that, as of May 1, 2010, plaintiff's impairments no longer met or equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). ( Id. 26.) Specifically, the ALJ found that, as of May 1, 2010, the severity of plaintiff's impairments had decreased to such an extent that they neither met the criteria of Medical Listings 12.04 and 12.06 nor precluded plaintiff from performing sedentary activity on a sustained and reliable basis. ( Id. 27.)
After reviewing the record, the ALJ also determined that, as of May 1, 2010, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "less than light work as defined in 20 CFR [§] 404.1567(b)." (A.R. 28.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is limited as follows:
[can] lift/carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand/walk for six hours of an eight hour day; sit for six hours of an eight [h]our day; climb stairs, stoop, and bend occasionally; and [is] precluded from operating fast moving or hazardous machinery; [is] restricted from highly high [sic] pace work such as rapid assembly; and [is] precluded from safety related operations; limited to moderately complex tasks, up to 4 to 5 step instructions in [an] object-oriented setting.
( Id. )
Ultimately, the ALJ found that, as of May 1, 2010, plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper, DOT 323.687-014, and a janitor, DOT 381.687-014, as she actually performed it. (A.R. 34.) In addition, the ALJ determined that, as of May 1, 2010, plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, namely inspector of wares, DOT 727.687, and street cleaner, DOT 955.687-018. ( Id. 35.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that "[plaintiff]'s disability ended as of May 1, 2010." ( Id. )
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). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). "Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Molina v. Astrue , 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).
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." Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs. , 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). "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). 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; see also Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). 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 of Soc. Sec. , 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Carmickle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 533 F.3d 1155, 1162 (9th Cir. 2008).
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in failing to: (1) properly consider the opinions of examining physicians Dr. Grogan and Dr. Curtis; (2) overcome the presumption of plaintiff's continued disability; (3) properly consider her subjective complaints; (4) properly consider the combined effects of her impairments in determining her RFC; and (5) pose a complete hypothetical to the VE. (Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") at 3.)
I. The ALJ Gave Specific And Legitimate Reasons For Rejecting The Opinions Of Examining Physicians Dr. Curtis And Dr. Grogan.
A. Legal Standard
In disability benefits cases, physicians may render medical opinions or provide opinions on the ultimate issue, namely the claimant's ability to perform work. Garrison v. Colvin , 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)). 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). As a general rule, however, the opinion of a treating physician is entitled to greater weight than that of an examining physician, the opinion of an examining physician is entitled to greater weight than that of a non-examining physician, and the weight afforded a non-examining physician's testimony depends on the degree to ...