United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
(Re: Docket Nos. 18, 21)
PAUL S. GREWAL, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Francine Bacchini suffers from what Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, agrees are a "medically severe combination of impairments." But based on a variety of physicians' opinions and Bacchini's testimony as to her daily activities, Colvin denied Bacchini's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Through an administrative law judge, Colvin determined that Bacchnini could work as an administrative clerk, a telemarketer and a payroll/timekeeper. Because the ALJ's justification for discounting the opinions of certain examining and non-examining physicians was insufficient, the court GRANTS Bacchini's motion for summary judgment, DENIES the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment and remands the case.
Through her administrative law judges, the Commissioner of Social Security evaluates claims using a sequential five-step evaluation process. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity, and if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. If the claimant currently is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to do basic work activities; if not, the ALJ finds the claimant "not disabled" and the claim is denied. If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the ALJ to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the listing of impairments. If so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits awarded.
If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the listing, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" to perform his or her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the ALJ denies the claim. It is the claimant's burden to prove that he or she is unable to perform past relevant work. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work,  comprising the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis.
The medical opinions of three types of medical sources are recognized in social security cases: "(1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant (nonexamining physicians)." Generally, a treating physician's opinion should be accorded more weight than opinions of doctors who did not treat the claimant, and an examining physician's opinion is entitled to greater weight than a non-examining physician's opinion. Id. If the examining physician's opinion is uncontradicted, the Commissioner must provide "clear and convincing" reasons for rejecting the opinion. Moreover, even if the opinion of the examining physician is contradicted by another doctor, it can only be rejected for "specific and legitimate reasons" that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. At bottom, an ALJ's conclusory reasons are not sufficient to justify rejection of a medical opinion.
Nearly four and a half years ago, Bacchini filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. In both applications, Bacchini claimed disability beginning December 28, 2014. The claims were denied initially, upon reconsideration, following a hearing and upon administrative appeal for review.
Bacchini now requests that this court remand the case back to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner requests that the court affirm the Commissioner's final decision.
The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties further consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). The court finds this motion suitable for disposition on the papers in light of this court's local rules and Procedural Order.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying Bacchini her benefits. The Commissioner's 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. In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance-it is such relevant evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the administrative record as a whole, the court must consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Where evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the ALJ. However, a non-examining physician cannot present substantial evidence unless corroborated. Further, "[i]f additional proceedings can remedy defects in the original administrative proceedings, a social security case should be remanded."
Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), the ALJ conducted the sequential five-step evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. At step one, he found Bacchini had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 28, 2008 and met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2013. At step two, the ALJ found Bacchini had "the following medically severe combination of impairments": degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine status post discectomy in 2003; exogenous obesity; obstructive sleep apnea; mood disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; chronic depression disorder; anxiety disorder; an adjustment disorder with depressed mood; panic disorder; osteoarthritis; hypertension; carpal tunnel syndrome; fibromyalgia syndrome; asthma; right rotator cuff syndrome; diabetes mellitus with neuropathy; ocular and scalp psoriasis and a history of alcohol abuse in sustained full remission. Based on the findings of psychological consultative examiner David Dahl, the records from Santa Clara Medical Center and Bacchini's testimony, the ALJ found Bacchini had mild-to-moderate limitation in activities of daily living and social functioning, mild limitation in concentration, persistence or pace and no episodes of decompensation. Though Dahl and state agency non-examiner R. Paxton ultimately concluded that Bacchini's mental impairments caused more than "mild" limitation, the ALJ found her limitations were "barely severe."
At step three, concurring with the opinions of the state agency medical consultants, the ALJ found Bacchini did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or ...