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Klimer v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division

July 19, 2016

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



         Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation (“JS”) setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

         Administrative Proceedings

         On January 20, 2011, plaintiff filed his application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability since February 1, 2004 due to bipolar disorder, manic depression, and severe back pain. [JS 2; Administrative Record (“AR”) 92, 226]. On March 16, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a written decision denying benefits. [AR 75-87]. Thereafter, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff’s request for review and remanded the case to the ALJ for further administrative proceedings. [AR 88-91]. Following a hearing, the ALJ issued a new decision on March 5, 2014 in which he concluded that plaintiff was not disabled prior to his date last insured (“DLI”). [AR 18-34]. The ALJ found that during the relevant period, plaintiff had a severe mental impairment consisting of bipolar disorder. [AR 23]. The ALJ determined that plaintiff had no exertional limitations. The ALJ further found that plaintiff had nonexertional limitations restricting him to unskilled, low stress jobs requiring simple instructions, and that he could not perform his past relevant work. [AR 24-27]. Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform alternative medium, unskilled jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that plaintiff was not disabled prior to expiration of his insured status. [AR 27-29]. That decision became the Commissioner’s final decision in this matter when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review. [JS 2; AR 1-6, 14-17].

         Standard of Review

         The Commissioner’s denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). “It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). “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. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Morgan v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)).


         Treating source opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Steven Allen, M.D. [See JS 4-9].

         A treating physician’s medical opinion is not binding on the Commissioner with respect to the existence of an impairment or the ultimate issue of disability. Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001). However, a treating physician's opinion as to the nature and severity of an individual's impairment is entitled to controlling weight when that opinion is well-supported and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2001); Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *1-*2. Even when not entitled to controlling weight, “treating source medical opinions are still entitled to deference and must be weighed” in light of (1) the length of the treatment relationship; (2) the frequency of examination; (3) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (4) the supportability of the diagnosis; (5) consistency with other evidence in the record; and (6) the area of specialization. Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157 & n.6 (quoting SSR 96-2p and citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527); Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202.

         If a treating source opinion is uncontroverted, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting it. If contradicted by that of another doctor, a treating or examining source opinion may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are based on substantial evidence in the record. Batson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); Tonapetyan, 242 F.3d at 1148-1149; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-831 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Plaintiff’s DLI for social security disability insurance purposes was June 30, 2007.[1] [AR 23]. Therefore, as the ALJ noted, the relevant time period for determining plaintiff’s eligibility for disability insurance benefits was from February 1, 2004, plaintiff’s alleged onset date, through June 30, 2007, his DLI. [See AR 23].

         Plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Allen in July 2013, almost six years after his DLI. [AR 1082]. On August 8, 2013, Dr. Allen filled out a mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, in which he noted plaintiff’s “chronic diagnoses” of bipolar disorder and severe depression. [AR 1046]. Dr. Allen opined that plaintiff was markedly limited in several areas of functioning, including the ability to maintain concentration and attention, the ability to complete a normal workday, and the ability to get along with coworkers. [AR 1044-1045]. According to Dr. Allen, plaintiff “lack[ed] the psychiatric stability necessary for employment.” [AR 1046].

         Thereafter, plaintiff asked Dr. Allen to review his medical records dating from June 1, 2007 through July 22, 2013. [See AR 1082]. After reviewing those records, Dr. Allen drafted a letter dated December 4, 2013 in which he opined that, between June 1, 2007 and July 22, 2013, plaintiff’s “bipolar diathesis and his reported adverse reactions to [] mood stabilization medications could have adversely affected his ability to maintain full time employment.” [AR 1082-1083]. Dr. Allen noted that plaintiff had been hospitalized in December 2010 with symptoms of mania; he struggled with “adverse medicinal ...

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