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Perez v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 8, 2017





         Plaintiff appeals a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration (“the Agency”), denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). He claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he: (1) rejected the treating doctor's opinion; (2) determined that Plaintiff and his mother were not credible; and (3) found that Plaintiff could work. For the reasons explained below, the ALJ's decision is reversed and the case is remanded to the Agency for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         In August 2011, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that he had been unable to work since December 31, 2002, due to chronic lower back pain, Hepatitis C, hypertension, and insomnia. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 226-34, 257.) The Agency denied the applications initially and on reconsideration. (AR 87, 97.) Plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 130-31.) On February 27, 2013, he appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing. (AR 48-50, 52-69.) On March 19, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying his application for benefits. (AR 98-112.)

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which vacated the decision and remanded the case to the ALJ to further evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairment, reconsider the testimony of Plaintiff's mother, further evaluate the doctors' opinions after updating the record, develop the record regarding Plaintiff's past work, and, if warranted, obtain testimony from a vocational expert. (AR 114-16.)

         On March 25, 2015, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at a second hearing before a different ALJ. (AR 31-42.) On June 26, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. (AR 12-28.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 1-6.) This action followed.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Residual Functional Capacity Determination

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work if it involved only occasional bending and stooping. (AR 18.) Plaintiff objects to this finding. He contends that, in order to reach this conclusion, the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of one of Plaintiff's treating doctors and discounted Plaintiff's and his mother's testimony without cause. (Joint Stip. at 9-22, 37-43.) For the following reasons, the Court remands this issue to the Agency for further consideration.

         1. The Treating Doctor's Opinion

         In January 2013, Plaintiff's treating doctor, Dr. William Edelstein, diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic lower back pain and concluded that he could occasionally lift, carry, or pull less than ten pounds; stand or walk for a total of less than two hours in an eight-hour day; and sit continuously for less than six hours. (AR 380.) He also opined that Plaintiff could not reach repeatedly and that he would miss 60 to 120 hours of work per month. (AR 380.) According to Dr. Edelstein, Plaintiff's condition had persisted for 13 years. (AR 380.)

         Had the ALJ accepted Dr. Edelstein's opinion, he would have had to conclude that Plaintiff was not even capable of performing fulltime sedentary work. But the ALJ rejected Dr. Edelstein's opinion because: (1) it was not supported by objective medical evidence; and (2) it was undermined by the opinions of treating doctor John Landsberg, consultative examiner Ursula Taylor, and two reviewing doctors. (AR 21.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Edelstein's opinion.

         It is the province of the ALJ to resolve conflicts in the medical evidence. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). There are three types of doctors that supply that evidence: treating doctors, examining doctors, and reviewing doctors. All things being equal, treating doctors' opinions are entitled to the most weight because they are hired to cure and have more opportunity to know and observe the patient. Id. at 1041. Examining doctors are next on the list, followed by reviewing doctors. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). ALJs, however, are not required to merely accept the opinion of any doctor and, where an opinion is contradicted, may reject it for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id. at 830.

         In rejecting Dr. Edelstein's opinion, the ALJ noted that, though a treating doctor's opinion is normally entitled to significant weight, that rule is only applicable if the opinion is supported by objective medical evidence. (AR 21.) He then went on to explain that, “such is not the case regarding the assessment of Dr. Edelstein of extreme physical limitations of 13 years duration (Exhibit 8F).” (AR 21.) In the ALJ's view, ...

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