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Haydostian v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 1, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Charles Joseph Haydostian (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties’ briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Erica P. Grosjean, United States Magistrate Judge.[1] Upon a review of the administrative record, the Court finds the ALJ’s decision is proper and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Accordingly, this Court affirms the agency’s determination to deny benefits and denies Plaintiff’s appeal.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB in September 2011, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2009.[2] AR 180. His application was denied initially in January 2012 and on reconsideration in July 2012. AR 122, 128. A hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge John Cusker (“ALJ”) on January 9, 2013. AR 32-62. On May 31, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 16-30. Plaintiff filed an appeal of the decision with the Appeals Council. AR 5-7. The Appeals Council denied his appeal, rendering the order the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-3.

         Plaintiff now challenges that decision, arguing that the ALJ erred by: (1) relying on nonexamining physicians over treating and examining physicians without an adequate basis, (2) finding the Plaintiff not credible, and (3) not including all of Plaintiff’s impairments in the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) determination.[3] (Doc. 15, pgs. 6-8). Plaintiff argues that the Court should reverse and award benefits to Plaintiff. In the alternative, Plaintiff contends the case should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. In opposition, Defendant argues that the ALJ: (1) properly found Plaintiff not entirely credible, (2) properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence, and (3) properly did not account for unsupported limitations in the RFC assessment. (Doc. 26, pgs. 5-12).

         A. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that he attended school through the tenth grade, and took a high school proficiency examination. AR 37. After receiving six months vocational training as a welder, he went on to work as a structural steel fitter for 15 years. AR 37. After December 2009, the alleged onset date, Plaintiff worked part time doing other odd jobs at work sites for his employer because his pain prevented him from doing his welder work. AR 38-39.

         Plaintiff testified that he cannot stand for more than short periods because his feet swell and become numb. AR 41-42. It is also difficult for him to grasp and lift things with his left hand and arm. AR 42. He has difficulty bending and can only lift 15 pounds. AR 43, 45. He cannot reach overhead or outward repeatedly with his left arm. AR 46. The fingers of his left hand “curl up” into a fist after 20 minutes of use. AR 48. He experiences pain on the left side of his head, face, and neck. AR 44. In response to pain and dizziness he spends seven to eight hours lying down during the day. AR 43-44. Plaintiff testified he cannot afford to see a doctor. AR 42, 49. He has sought no treatment and taken no medication, including over-the-counter medication, since January 2012. AR 40, 50-51. Plaintiff received unemployment insurance until December 2012. AR 50.

         B. Medical Record

         The entire medical record was reviewed by the Court. However, only evidence that relates to the issues raised in this appeal is summarized below.

         i. Medical Treatment History

         On October 2009, just before the alleged onset date of December 2009, CT scans showed Plaintiff had acute and chronic sinusitis. AR 261. Starting in September 2009, Plaintiff received primary care treatment from Patrick Brauner, M.D. AR 271. Dr. Brauner prescribed Plaintiff narcotic medications for complaints of facial pain. AR 270. Dr. Brauner referred Plaintiff for sleep studies in May 2010 but he refused the services. AR 267. Dr. Brauner also referred Plaintiff for a neurological examination regarding his complaints of facial pain. AR 264. On August 4, 2010, Plaintiff requested that Dr. Brauner write a note to put him on temporary disability, but Dr. Brauner refused until the results of the neurological examination were back. Plaintiff became angry, and Dr. Brauner stopped treating Plaintiff. AR 264, 284.

         On August 24, 2010, Madhav Suri, M.D., performed a neurological examination (on referral from Dr. Brauner) to evaluate Plaintiff for complaints of left facial pain and left arm pain. AR 285-88. He diagnosed Plaintiff with “left facial pain, atypical, suggestive of left trigeminal neuralgia atypical facial pain.” AR 284. On September 3, 2010, nerve conduction studies showed abnormal results of median nerve entrapment at the wrists, left greater than the right. AR 289-90.

         In October 2010, Ernest Yamamoto, M.D., who had been treating Plaintiff for allegations of facial pain, reported Plaintiff was non-compliant with medications and Dr. Yamamoto said he would no longer serve as Plaintiff’s physician. AR 343-45. In November 2010, Dr. Suri declined to prescribe Plaintiff narcotics Plaintiff had requested based on Dr. Brauner’s recommendation that other medications should be considered. AR 284. From November 2010 to July 2011, Plaintiff saw Michael Castillo, M.D., periodically for complaints of facial pain and he received medication refills. AR 328-29, 331, 334, 341-42.

         Plaintiff’s last medical treatment was in January 2012, when he went to the hospital with facial and left arm pain and requested medication refills. AR 362. Physical examination findings at that time were unremarkable. AR 363-64.

         ii. Consultative Examiner, Dr. Portnoff, Ph.D.

         On November 18, 2011, Lance A. Portnoff, Ph.D., performed a consultative psychological examination. AR 348-52. Plaintiff reported that he felt depressed about his health and did not like to be around people. AR 349. Dr. Portnoff diagnosed a depressive disorder, NOS, with anxious features, and methamphetamine abuse in full sustained remission. AR 351. He found that Plaintiff demonstrated adequate concentration, persistence, and pace with appropriate thought content and intact memory. AR 349-50. Dr. Portnoff opined that Plaintiff was capable of performing simple and repetitive tasks. AR 351. He further opined Plaintiff had moderate limitations in his ability to accept instructions from supervisors, interact with the public, maintain regular attendance, complete a normal workday or workweek, and deal with the stress encountered in a competitive work environment. AR 351-52.

         iii. Consultative Examiner, Dr. Wagner, M.D.

         On December 14, 2011, Roger Wagner, M.D., performed a consultative internal medicine examination. AR 355-59. Plaintiff only indicated problems with facial and arm pain, and the examiner observed that Plaintiff previously had sinus surgery. AR 355, 357. Dr. Wagner diagnosed left ulnar side fourth and fifth finger pain and numbness, and left facial pain possibly consistent with trigeminal neuralgia, AR 359. Dr. Wagner assessed a normal range of motion with full motor strength in the bilateral extremities, including the left elbow, AR 356-57. The doctor recorded that he was able to touch Plaintiff’s face without any difficulty, AR 359. Dr. Wagner opined Plaintiff had no exertional or postural limitations except that he should avoid climbing or balancing on ladders or scaffolds given his reported history of vertigo. AR 359. He further opined Plaintiff had no manipulative limitations involving his right (dominant) hand, but he was limited to frequent manipulative activities with the left hand.

         iv. State Agency Medical Evaluators

         On December 15, 2011, G. Ikawa, M.D., a State agency physician, reviewed the evidence and opined Plaintiff could sustain simple repetitive tasks with limited public contact. AR 72-74. On June 27, 2012, Anna M. Franco, Psy.D., reviewed the evidence and affirmed Dr. Ikawa’s opinion regarding Plaintiff’s mental abilities. AR 105-107.

         On January 11, 2012, Martha A. Goodrich, M.D., a State agency physician, reviewed the evidence of record and opined Plaintiff had no exertional limitations, but he was limited to occasionally crawling and climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. AR 70-72. Dr. Goodrich further opined Plaintiff was limited to gross and fine manipulation with the left upper extremity and needed to avoid exposure to vibration, and in particular, he was limited to occasionally using vibratory hand tools with either upper extremity. AR 71-72. On June 20, 2012, State agency physician L. Bobba, M.D., reviewed the evidence and endorsed Dr. Goodrich’s opinion. AR 103-105.


         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

. . . his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To achieve uniformity in the decision-making process, the Commissioner has established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant’s alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502(a)-(f). The ALJ proceeds through the steps and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502(a)(4). The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion testimony. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.

         Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable “severe” impairments, [4] (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) whether the claimant retained the RFC to perform his or her past relevant work, and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f).

         Using the Social Security Administration’s five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 19. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act though September 30, 2015. AR 21. Further, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. AR 21. The ALJ identified “history of left ulnar side fourth and fifth finger pain and numbness, status post-surgery; history of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, with left greater than the right; trigeminal neuralgia; depressive disorder, not otherwise specified (NOS) with anxious features; and a history of methamphetamine use, in sustained full remission” as severe impairments. AR 21. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 22.

         Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that:

[Plaintiff] has the [RFC] to perform work at all exertional levels, but is limited to occasionally crawling and climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He is also limited to frequent gross and fine manipulation with the left upper extremity, and must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration; specifically he is limited to occasionally using vibratory hand tools with either upper extremity. In addition, he is capable of sustaining simple repetitive tasks with limited public contact.

AR 23.

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. AR 26. However, the ALJ found that because there were a significant number of other jobs in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform, he was not disabled. AR 26.


         Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits under the Act. In reviewing findings of fact with respect to such determinations, this Court must determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether: (1) it is supported by substantial evidence, and (2) it applies the correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). It is “relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Id.

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ’s Assessment of the Medical Opinions is Supported by Substantial Evidence.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly considered the medical evidence regarding Plaintiff’s impairments. Specifically, Plaintiff is challenging the ALJ’s reliance on nonexamining physicians over examining and treating physicians. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied on the opinion of non-examining sources and did not address the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physicians. (Doc. 15, pg. 7).

         Defendant contends that the ALJ’s assessment of the medical analysis is supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ properly provided reasons for the weight accorded to the medical opinions. Specifically, Defendant argues that the ALJ did not discuss treating physician opinions because there were no treating physician opinions and in relying on the nonexamining opinions, the ALJ adopted the most restrictive ...

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