United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL L. ABRAMS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff filed this action on July 23, 2014, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Social Security Income ("SSI") payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on July 25, 2014 and August 21, 2014. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on March 16, 2015, 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 May 18, 1962. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 27, 170.] He has past relevant work experience as an electrician, restaurant manager, and merchandise distributor. [AR at 27, 52.]
On April 10, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, and on February 12, 2013, he protectively filed an application for SSI payments, alleging in both applications that he has been unable to work since October 24, 2011. [AR at 16, 170-76, 182.] After his applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 16, 122-23.] A video hearing was held on June 11, 2013, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on his own behalf. [AR at 36-59.] A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. [AR at 52-58.] On June 27, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from October 24, 2011, the alleged onset date, through June 27, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 16-29.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 11.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 15, 2014 [AR at 1-5], the ALJ's 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 conclusion." Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin. , 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks 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.") (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld." Ryan , 528 F.3d at 1198 (citation and internal quotation marks 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
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 24, 2011, the alleged onset date. [AR at 18.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe combination of impairments:
[O]besity; degenerative joint disease of the left knee, status post arthroscopy and partial meniscectomy (January 2009) and status post medial compartment replacement (August 2009); history of chronic tear of the interior talofibular ligament of the right ankle (resolved); degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, including degenerative disc disease, mild-to-moderate facet arthrosis at L4-5, and minimal-to-mild disc bulges, but no evidence of persisting neuroforaminal stenosis, central canal stenosis, or nerve root involvement; affective disorder; mood disorder; pain disorder associated with a general medical condition; and anxiety disorder.
[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. [AR at 19.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b),  as follows:
[H]e is limited to standing and walking no more than 45 minutes at one time, without a change of position, and no more than 4 hours total in an eight-hour day; is limited to climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling no more than occasionally; is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and from working around hazards, such as unprotected heights and moving machinery; and must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes. [Plaintiff] is also limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, involving no more than simple work-related decisions and a few workplace changes; no more than occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers and no more than occasional contact with the general public. [Plaintiff] is also unable to perform work involving fast-paced production requirements (defined as "constant activity, with tasks performed sequentially in rapid succession").
[AR at 20.] 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 as an electrician, restaurant manager, or merchandise distributor. [AR at 27.] 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 "small products assembler" (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 706.684-022), "inspector/hand packager" (DOT No. 559.687-074), and "sorter" (DOT No. 569.687-022). [AR at 28, 55-56.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of October 24, 2011, through June 27, 2013, the date of the decision. [AR at 28.]
THE ALJ'S DECISION
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) rejected the opinions of plaintiff's treating sources, T. Sri Jaerajam, M.D. ("Dr. Sri"), Dr. Villanueva, and Michele Archambeault, Psy.D.; and (2) rejected plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 3, 4, 15, 24.] Plaintiff also contends that the Court should apply the credit-as-true standard. [JS at 3, 37.]
As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff, in part, and remands for further proceedings.
A. MEDICAL OPINIONS
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 (citation and internal quotation marks 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 (citation and internal quotation marks 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 interpretation thereof, and making findings." Reddick , 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ "must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the [treating or examining] doctors', are correct." Id.
2. Dr. Sri and Dr. Villanueva
Dr. Sri, plaintiff's treating physician [see, e.g., AR at 718-26], saw plaintiff on a "monthly" basis since May 2012. [AR at 718-26, 826-36, 908-12, 914.] Dr. Sri diagnosed plaintiff with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with protrusion of L4-L5, with nerve impingement, and depression. [AR at 914.] Dr. Sri provided treatment with medication, referrals, and oversight on blood work and chest x-rays. [AR at 718-24, 826-27, 908-12.]
On July 11, 2012, Dr. Sri completed a Medical Source Statement - Physical form. [AR at 728-29.] In that form, he opined that plaintiff could lift and/or carry ten pounds occasionally or frequently; could stand and/or walk less than two hours in an eight-hour workday; could sit less than six hours in an eight-hour workday; must alternate standing and sitting every twenty to thirty minutes; could never climb or crawl; could occasionally balance, stoop, or crouch; could frequently kneel; must change position every thirty to forty minutes; and had restrictions around heights and temperature extremes. [Id.] Dr. Sri stated that his findings of "L knee replacement" and "DDD [degenerative disc disease] L-spine L4-5" supported his lifting and/or carrying restrictions, and "DDD [degenerative disc disease] lumbar spine, [b]ulging disc L4-5" supported his assessment that plaintiff must alternate standing and sitting every twenty to thirty minutes. [Id.]
On April 25, 2013, Dr. Sri completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to do Work Related Activities (PHYSICAL) form. [AR at 914-16.] In that form, he opined that plaintiff could walk three blocks; could sit for twenty minutes at one time, stand for ten minutes at one time, and sit and stand/walk for a total of one hour in an eight-hour workday; must "consistantly" [sic] take unscheduled breaks to lie down for twenty to thirty minutes during a workday; could occasionally lift and carry less than ten pounds; could rarely lift and carry ten pounds; could occasionally balance; could rarely twist, stoop, crouch/squat, climb ladders, climb stairs, or kneel; could occasionally handle; could rarely finger or reach; would be "off task" for twenty-five percent or more of the workday; and would be absent from work due to his impairments or treatment more than three days. [Id.] Dr. Sri identified his clinical findings and signs as follows: "[Plaintiff] is not happy, affect is abnormal. Pain in back causing antalgic gait. [Plaintiff] unable to sit still due to pain." [AR at 914.] Dr. Sri identified plaintiff's symptoms as follows: "Back: pain radiating into both legs, pain aggravates sleep, fatigue 2° lack of sleep/pain" and "Depression: recent break down 2/13; loss of interest, fatigue, insomnia." [Id.] Dr. Sri described plaintiff's treatment as follows: "[Plaintiff] has slight improvement with anti-depressant but still has moderate depressive symptoms. [Plaintiff] on chronic pain medication for his back which causes fatigue and lack of energy." [Id.]
The ALJ gave "little weight" to the opinion of Dr. Sri that plaintiff would be incapable of performing even a substantial range of sedentary work [AR at 26]:
I find the medical opinions of Dr. Sri are conclusory, with little or nothing in the way of objective support or rationale for the extreme limitations it imposes. I find the opinion of Dr. Sri is not well supported by the objective medical evidence or the evidence present in the record as a whole, as outlined above. I note the second opinion of Dr. Sri expressly relies on [plaintiff]'s subjective complaints and pain behaviors, rather than any significant clinical abnormalities in support of the limitations it imposes and is also directly contradicted by [plaintiff]'s own statements [of] record and [plaintiff]'s testimony at the hearing, where he acknowledged that he was able to walk up ...