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Vincent v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 27, 2016




         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff’s applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Commissioner opposed while simultaneously filing a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 17, 22, 23.) No optional reply brief was filed by plaintiff.

         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 Commissioner’s final decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on September 9, 1969; she has a high school education; her previous occupations include cook, assistant manager of a burger restaurant, caregiver, and cashier; and she last worked in December 2010 as a cashier.[2] (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 44-46.) Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on April 18, 2011, alleging that her disability began on December 16, 2010, and that she was disabled due to bipolar disorder and chronic back pain.[3](AT 102-03, 217-29, 234.) After plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which took place on April 3, 2013. (AT 147-52, 155-71, 172-76.) In a decision dated June 17, 2013, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (AT 20-38.) The ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review on November 25, 2014. (AT 5-9.) The Appeals Council subsequently granted plaintiff an extension of time to seek judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision. (AT 1-3.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on April 27, 2015, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. (ECF No. 1.)


         Plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of the treating physicians; (2) whether the ALJ erroneously failed to consider plaintiff’s assessed mental limitations; and (3) whether the ALJ improperly failed to credit plaintiff’s and third parties’ testimony regarding the nature and impact of plaintiff’s functional limitations.


         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).


         A. Summary of the ALJ’s Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff’s entitlement to disability benefits pursuant to the Commissioner’s standard five-step analytical framework.[4] At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2011, the SSI application date. (AT 25.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 26.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she can occasionally lift/carry, push/pull 20 pounds and 10 pounds frequently; she could stand/walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. She can perform unskilled, simple repetitive tasks.

         (AT 27.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work. (AT 31.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, since April 18, 2011, the date the SSI application was filed. (AT 32.)

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

         (1) Whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of the treating physicians

         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 property 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, [5] 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.

         a. Dr. Birtha Balcazar, M.D.

         In March 2013, treating physician Dr. Balcazar completed a physical evaluation form assessing plaintiff’s ability to do work-related activities, which included the following limitations: plaintiff could lift/carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and under 10 pounds frequently; could stand/walk for 3 hours during an 8-hour day with normal breaks; could sit for 3 hours during an 8-hour day with normal breaks; could sit for 20 minutes and stand for 10-15 minutes before changing position; had to walk around for 5-10 minutes every 60 minutes; needed the opportunity to shift at will between sitting and standing/walking; and needed to lie down about twice a day during a work shift. (AT 575-76.) Dr. Balcazar opined that plaintiff could occasionally twist and climb stairs, but could never stoop, bend, crouch, or climb ladders. (AT 576-77.) Additionally, plaintiff could push or pull only up to 10 pounds and would have difficulty balancing. (AT 577.) Dr. Balcazar then opined that plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, wetness, humidity, noise and fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation, and should avoid moderate exposure to hazards including machinery and heights. (Id.) Overall, Dr. Balcazar opined that plaintiff could not work 8 hours per day, 5 days a week with legally allowed rest periods and lunch breaks at the normal pace for plaintiff’s type of work, and that plaintiff’s impairments would cause her to be absent from work more than three times a month. (AT 578.)

         For the reasons outlined below, the court finds that the ALJ properly discounted Dr. Balcazar’s opinion.

         First, the ALJ noted inconsistencies between Dr. Balcazar’s assessment and the medical evidence. (AT 30.) Indeed, Dr. Balcazar’s severe opinion conflicted with her own relatively minimal clinical findings. At plaintiff’s first medical examination with Dr. Balcazar in September 2012, the physician observed that plaintiff was alert with no acute distress, had partial amputation of the right big toe and full amputation of the right second toe, had calluses on the right foot, and was stepping more on the lateral side of the right foot to compensate for missing toes. (AT 561.) At her second visit with Dr. Balcazar in November 2012, Dr. Balcazar again noted plaintiff to be alert with no acute distress, and added that plaintiff had a somewhat antalgic gait due to back pain and was somewhat stiff. (AT 542-43.) Two months later, in January 2013, Dr. Balcazar once again noted that plaintiff was alert with no acute distress, and added that she appeared ambulatory and had only mild paralumbar tenderness on palpation. (AT 539-40.)

         Second, the ALJ also noted that plaintiff’s activities of daily living were inconsistent with Dr. Balcazar’s assessment:

She is able to care for her personal needs. She prepares simple meals, does household chores, and scrubs the shower, vacuums, does laundry, and shops for clothing and food. She goes out every day by walking. She walks 20-40 minutes a day. She also takes public transportation. She goes to the park with her friends. She went camping and was able to sleep in a sleeping bag. ...

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