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Davila v. Colvin

United States District Court, Central District of California, Western Division

November 4, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



Plaintiff Angelina Davila (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the final decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. The Court concludes that the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician. The ALJ’s decision is therefore reversed and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

1.0 Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed her application for benefits on September 21, 2011, alleging disability beginning March 12, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of disorders of the back and diabetes. AR 17. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with some additional functional limitations. AR 20.

2.0 Issues Presented

The parties dispute whether the ALJ erred in: (1) evaluating and weighing the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician; and (2) assessing Plaintiff’s credibility.[1] See Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 4.

3.0 Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits. The ALJ’s findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

4.0 The ALJ Failed to Provide Specific and Legitimate Reasons for Rejecting the Opinion of Plaintiff’s Treating Physician

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of her treating orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Greg Khounganian. JS at 3-10. Dr. Khounganian performed an L4-L5 vertebrae fusion surgery in March 2011 to help alleviate Plaintiff’s lower back pain. AR 327, 344. In a physical RFC questionnaire dated August 13, 2012, Dr. Khounganian provided information regarding the effect of Plaintiff’s lower back pain and her post-surgery status on her ability to perform various work-related functions. Among other things, Dr. Khounganian opined that Plaintiff was limited to standing and/or walking for two hours and sitting for less than six hours in an eight-hour workday, and that Plaintiff would be absent from work approximately three times per month due to her condition. AR 465-68.

In formulating Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ rejected Dr. Khounganian’s opinion as follows:

The undersigned has considered the opinion of the treating physician, Dr. Khounganian. The undersigned has given little weight to this opinion because it is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings. Dr. Khounganian essentially concluded the claimant was unable to work at the level of substantial gainful activity because of frequent absences. The undersigned finds this conclusion has no probative value and rejects it. As an opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner, this statement is not entitled to controlling weight and is not given special significance pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(e) and SSR 96-5. Further, this opinion is inconsistent with the claimant’s capacity to perform several activities of daily living normally, such as using the computer and taking public transportation. Moreover, this opinion is contradicted by treatment records documenting that the claimant’s back pain was “well controlled.” Tellingly, on May 8, 2012, an MRI scan showed partial bony fusion with bilateral screws and a mild bulging at L5 without significant encroachment of the foramina. Accordingly, little weight is given to this opinion.

AR 24 (citations to the administrative record omitted). In contrast, the ALJ gave “significant . . . but not full weight” to the opinions of a consulting examining physician and a state-agency consultant, each of whom “found that the claimant was restricted to a limited light exertional level.” AR 22-23.

An ALJ should generally give more weight to a treating physician’s opinion than to opinions from non-treating sources. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a treating physician’s opinion in favor of a non-treating physician’s contradictory opinion. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007); Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. However, “[t]he ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); accord Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001). The factors to be considered by the adjudicator in determining the weight to give a medical opinion include the length of the treatment relationship ...

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