United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed this action on March 20, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on April 17, 2014, and April 24, 2014. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on December 2, 2014, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.
Plaintiff was born on April 21, 1967. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 30, 161.] He has past relevant work experience of a hybrid job of press operator and folding machine worker. [AR at 40, 74.]
On May 6, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. [AR at 19, 161-67.] In his application, plaintiff alleged disability beginning on March 27, 2010. [AR at 19, 161.] After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 122-23.] A hearing was held on November 1, 2012, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on his own behalf. [AR at 19, 44-81.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 74-79.] On November 16, 2012, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim. [AR at 19-32.] When the Appeals Council affirmed the decision on January 28, 2014 [AR at 1-5], the decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sam v. Astrue , 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citations omitted). This action followed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue , 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
"Substantial evidence means 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 conclu sion." Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin. , 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (same). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Mayes v. Massanari , 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted); see Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld." Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) ("If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [the reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.") (citation omitted).
THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY
Persons are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan , 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).
A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS
The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended April 9, 1996. In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id . If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id . If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id . If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id . The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id . The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. Id . The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester , 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin , 966 F.2d at 1257.
B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS
In this case, at step one the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 27, 2010, the alleged onset date. [AR at 21.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
[C]ervical spine strain with radicular components and MRI evidence of disc bulging at C5-6 and C6-7 minimally with bilateral neuroforaminal stenoses; lumbar strain with radicular components and MRI evidence of disc bulges at L4-L5, L5-S1 with mild spinal stenosis at L4-L5; right knee degeneration of the medial meniscus with bursitis; left elbow tendonitis; and depression.
[Id. (citations omitted).] At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments in the Listings. [Id. at 22.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a),  as follows:
[C]an lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, can stand and/or walk six hours in an eight-hour day (with normal breaks), can sit six hours in an eight-hour day (with normal breaks), must have the option to sit and/or stand (stand up momentarily after sitting), can frequently climb ramps and stairs, can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, can frequently kneel, crouch, and crawl, can occasionally stoop, and is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions.
[Id.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work in the hybrid job of press operator and folding machine worker. [AR at 30, 74-76.] At step five, based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, including work as a "table worker" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 739.687-182), "touch up screener" (DOT No. 726.684-110), and "wafer breaker, semiconductor" (DOT No. 726.687-046). [AR at 31, 76-79.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of March 27, 2010, through November 16, 2012, the date of the decision. [AR at 32.]
THE ALJ'S DECISION
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) rejected the opinions of plaintiff's treating sources, Ben Shwachman, M.D., and Jimmy Yue, D.O., and examining physicians, Michael Tan, D.O., and A. Michael Moheimani, M.D.; and (2) rejected plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 4.]
As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff, in part, and remands for further proceedings.
A. TREATING PHYSICIAN
1. Legal Standard
"There are three types of medical opinions in social security cases: those from treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians." Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin. , 574 F.3d 685, 692 (9th Cir. 2009); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 404.1527. "As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating source than to the opinion of doctors who do not treat the claimant." Lester , 81 F.3d at 830; Garrison v. Colvin , 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198); Turner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 613 F.3d 1217, 1222 (9th Cir. 2010). "The opinion of an examining physician is, in turn, entitled to greater weight than the opinion of a nonexamining physician." Lester , 81 F.3d at 830; Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198.
"[T]he ALJ may only reject a treating or examining physician's uncontradicted medical opinion based on clear and convincing reasons." Carmickle , 533 F.3d at 1164 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). "Where such an opinion is contradicted, however, it may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Carmickle , 533 F.3d at 1164 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198; Ghanim v. Colvin , 763 F.3d 1154, 1160-61 (9th Cir. 2014); Garrison , 759 F.3d at 1012. The ALJ can meet the requisite specific and legitimate standard "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his ...