United States District Court, E.D. California
JAMES L. EVANS, 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 under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. 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).
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on August 3, 2010. In the application, plaintiff claims that disability began on January 1, 2008. Plaintiff claims that disability is caused by "personality problems." Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. Following denial of reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on April 2, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Carol A. Eckersen. In an April 18, 2012, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled based on the following relevant findings:
1. The claimant has the following severe impairment(s): Asperger's disorder;
2. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations;
3. The claimant has the following residual functional capacity: the full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant is capable of performing simple repetitive tasks in a non-public setting; he cannot interact with co-workers and would function best in an independent separate work area; he may occasionally interact with supervisors; and
4. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and vocational expert testimony, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
After the Appeals Council declined review on May 15, 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).
In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by considering his ability to sustain work-related activities given his mental impairment. Citing Gatliff v. Commissioner of Social Security , 172 F.3d 690, 694 (9th Cir. 1999), plaintiff argues that "substantial gainful activity means more than merely the ability to find a job and physically perform it; it also requires the ability to hold the job for a significant period of time." In making this argument, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's analysis of the opinions of Drs. White, McClure, and Kemp. He also argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting his own testimony as only partially credible. Finally, plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasons for giving lay witness testimony from his father, Jim Evans, only partial weight.
A. Evaluation of the 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.
1. Dr. White
As to Dr. White, the ALJ stated:
On November 30, 2010, consultative psychologist, Miles White, Psy.D., examined the claimant. No medical records were provided for his review. The claimant reported that his only problem is his inability to effectively relate interpersonally with others. Furthermore, he maintained that this has adversely affected his ability to obtain and maintain employment ever since he was old enough to work. The claimant admitted that he has had this problem "ever since [he] can remember." He has had ongoing problems getting along with his peers and authority figures throughout his life. The claimant said he has not had any psychiatric treatment.
Dr. White noted that the claimant reported and presented no difficulty in his ability to concentrate and focus attention. He has mild difficulty in making decisions, which Dr. White noted was consistent with his presentation. He performs household tasks with supervision from his father with whom he lives. Dr. White states that on a daily basis the claimant presents as having moderate restrictions in his psychological ability to function independently.
On mental status examination, Dr. White noted that the claimant was casually dressed and appeared significantly younger than his stated age. He was generally able to volunteer information with direct and structured questioning. He exhibited no psychomotor agitation or retardation. He appeared genuine and truthful. Regarding the claimant's thought processes, Dr. White stated the claimant presented as cognitively challenged at times but was generally coherent and organized. The claimant exhibited no tangentiality or loosening of associations. The claimant's thought content was relevant and non-delusional. There was no expression of bizarre or psychotic thought content. There was no presentation of suicidal, homicidal, or paranoid ideation during the interview. The claimant denied recent auditory or visual hallucinations. The claimant did not appear to be responding to internal stimuli during the interview.
Dr. White indicated that the claimant's general presentation was "rather odd and atypical" however his mood was projected as calm and stable. His affect was full-range and congruent with his thought and conversational content. The claimant denied experiencing current feelings of depression or having feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. He also denied any current suicidal ideation, plan, or intent. His speech was generally clear, linear, and normally articulated. There was no ...