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Rayford v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

April 1, 2015



JOSEPH C. SPERO, Chief Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff James Rayford challenges the decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), finding Rayford not disabled and therefore not eligible for disability benefits. Rayford argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") who denied his application for benefits erred in failing discuss reports of two psychiatrists who concluded that Rayford had more significant mental impairments than the ALJ ultimately found. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Civil Local Rule 16-5. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED, Defendant's motion is DENIED, and the case is REMANDED for further administrative proceedings to determine the significance of the psychiatrists' reports.[1]


The parties' arguments in this case address the narrow question of whether the ALJ erred in failing to discuss reports in the record from Dr. Jasdeep Aulakh, a psychiatrist who evaluated Rayford in 2009, and Dr. K. J. Loomis, a consulting psychiatrist who prepared a report later that year based in part on Dr. Aulakh's evaluation. This Order therefore focuses on the facts relevant to that issue and does not attempt to recount Rayford's full medical history or the complete procedural background of his disability claims.

Rayford suffers from severe impairments due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and hypertension. Administrative Record ("AR, " dkt. 15) at 70. He has also been diagnosed by multiple doctors with psychological impairments related to depression. See id. at, e.g., 320, 472.

A. First Application

Rayford's first application for disability benefits was denied by an ALJ on February 23, 2009. Id. at 52-59. The ALJ in that proceeding identified Rayford's "low back pain, depression, and obesity [as] severe impairments." Id. at 54. The ALJ found, however, that those impairments did not meet or equal any impairment listed in the Social Security regulations, and that Rayford remained capable of work in positions that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, including as a cashier or security guard. Id. at 54-58. The ALJ therefore determined that Rayford was not disabled. Id. at 58-59. Rayford does not challenge that decision.

B. Second Application

Rayford submitted a new application on March 24, 2009, alleging disability beginning on February 24, 2009-the day after his first denial. See id. at 67. Rayford recognized that under the Ninth Circuit's decision in Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691 (9th Cir. 1985), his earlier denial created a presumption of non-disability, which required him to show changed circumstances. See AR at 24, 36, 67. He did not argue any change in his physical impairments, but rather "focus[ed] solely on [his] mental health... as a changed circumstance." Id. at 24 (statement of Rayford's attorney at an administrative hearing).

On June 17, 2009, Dr. Aulakh examined Rayford and prepared a report indicating that he had difficulty with certain tests of memory, calculation, and concentration. Id. at 319. Dr. Aulakh reported a "Global Assessment of Functioning Score" of 55, and stated that Rayford "may need support or coaching due to his depressed mood which renders his [sic] depressed and fearful thus affecting his persistence and reliability" and "may not be able to endure schedules or work in a full time position." Id. at 320. On July 23, 2009, Dr. Loomis prepared a report, which consists primarily of checkbox responses, indicating that Rayford had "moderate" limitations in several categories. Id. at 321-34.

Dr. Lisa Kalich, a psychologist, examined Rayford in June of 2011, and determined that he had more severe psychological impairments than Dr. Aulakh had found. See id. at 466-73. Rayford's primary care physician, Dr. Steven Sackrin, wrote a letter in May of 2012 endors[ing] Dr. Kalich's assessment and stating that "[t]here is clearly no way [Rayford] can work at this time." Id. at 517-18. However, Dr. Ute Kollath, another psychologist, examined Rayford in August of 2011, and determined that he had only mild limitations. Id. at 474-81. Dr. Kollath concluded that certain test results were "congruent with what is seen as a malingering profile, " and that Rayford's statements and cognitive test results were therefore "unreliable." Id. at 476.

The ALJ in this proceeding determined that Rayford "failed to prove that his depression is a severe impairment that has continued or can be expected to continue for a period of twelve months or more... [b]ecause the claimant's medically determinable mental impairment causes no more than mild' limitation of any of the first three functional areas and no' [extended] episodes of decompensation." Id. at 70 (citing 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520a(d)(1), 416.909, 416.920a(d)(1)). The ALJ determined that Rayford's psychiatric treatment and compliance with his medication were not consistent, and that his symptoms improved when he took his medication. Id. at 72.

The ALJ gave "very little weight" to the opinion of Dr. Kalich, noting factors including "evidence of medication noncompliance, treatment gaps, and malingering in testing, " and that Dr. Kalich had not administered a test to detect malingering. Id. at 72-73. The ALJ also gave "little weight to the mental assessment of the claimant's primary care physician, Dr. Sackrin, " because "the claimant's treatment notes do not support the severity of limitations." Id. at 73. Instead, the ALJ gave "significant weight" to Dr. ...

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