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Garza v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 14, 2016

IRMA GARZA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff’s application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from January 27, 2012, the date on which plaintiff filed her SSI application, through the date of the final administrative decision. (ECF No. 15.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff’s motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 19.) No optional reply brief was filed.

         For the reasons discussed below, the court DENIES plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on February 1, 1961; has an eighth grade education; is able to communicate in English; and previously worked as a laundry laborer. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 32, 59, 132, 150, 152.)[2] On January 27, 2012, plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that her disability began on April 7, 2011. (AT 71, 132.)[3] Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled primarily due to hand problems, bipolar disorder, arthritis, and tendonitis. (AT 151.) After plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which took place on May 23, 2013, and at which plaintiff, represented by an attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AT 28-62.) In a decision dated July 23, 2013, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from January 27, 2012, the date that plaintiff’s SSI application was filed, through the date of the ALJ’s decision. (AT 15-23.) The ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review on December 8, 2014. (AT 1-4.) Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court on January 26, 2015, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence in concluding that plaintiff had no severe impairment or combination of impairments at step two of the sequential disability evaluation process; and (2) whether the ALJ erred in not further developing the record regarding plaintiff’s ankle injury.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). “The court will uphold the ALJ’s conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Summary of the ALJ’s Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff’s entitlement to SSI pursuant to the Commissioner’s standard five-step analytical framework.[4] At the first step, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 27, 2012, the date that plaintiff’s SSI application was filed. (AT 17.) However, at step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited (or was expected to significantly limit) plaintiff’s ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; and that therefore, plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (Id.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from January 27, 2012, the date that plaintiff’s SSI application was filed, through the date of the ALJ’s decision. (AT 22.)

         B. Plaintiff’s Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner’s Determinations

         1. Whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence in concluding that plaintiff had no severe impairment or combination of impairments at step two of the sequential disability evaluation process[5]

         Under the Commissioner’s regulations, an impairment or combination of impairments is deemed to be severe at step two if it “significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521(a). As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has explained, “the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims. An impairment or combination of impairments can be found not severe only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability to work.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         In evaluating medical opinion evidence at step two, as well as at other steps in the sequential disability evaluation process, the weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally speaking, a treating physician’s opinion carries more weight than an examining physician’s opinion, and an examining physician’s opinion carries more weight than a non-examining physician’s opinion. Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202.

         To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) contradictory opinions are in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. An ALJ may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for “specific and legitimate” reasons. Id. at 830. While a treating professional’s opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by a supported examining professional’s opinion (supported by different independent clinical findings), the ALJ may resolve the conflict. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)). The regulations require the ALJ to weigh the contradicted treating physician opinion, Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157, [6] except that the ALJ in any event need not give it any weight if it is conclusory and supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 1999) (treating physician’s conclusory, minimally supported opinion rejected); see also Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. The opinion of a non-examining professional, by itself, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.

         In this case, the ALJ properly found at step two that plaintiff did not have a severe physical impairment.

         As the ALJ observed, although plaintiff has alleged pain in multiple areas, including the neck, lower back, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, and knees, physical examinations by her treating providers have rendered little objective findings other than tenderness, no specific physical limitations were ...


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