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Harvey v. Colvin

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

February 9, 2017

WILLIE J. HARVEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          ANDREW J. WISTRICH United States Magistrate Judge

         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 supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation (“JS”) setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

         Administrative Proceedings

         The parties are familiar with the procedural facts. [See JS 2]. In a February 3, 2014 written hearing decision that constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of plantar keratomas, hammertoes, mood disorder, and a history of drug and alcohol abuse, with cocaine use in remission since 2000 but ongoing alcohol use. [AR 19]. The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with frequent postural activities, occasional kneeling and crouching, no use of ladders, no walking on uneven terrain, no hazards, occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, and no public contact. [AR 19-21].

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff's RFC precluded him from performing his past relevant work but did not preclude him from performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as the jobs of dry janitor, hospital cleaner, and hotel/motel cleaner. [AR 26-28]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from October 17, 2012, the date his SSI application was filed, through the date of the ALJ's decision. [AR 28].

         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)).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff did not have severe paranoid schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations and visual hallucinations, and that the mental functional limitations assigned by the ALJ were not based on substantial evidence in the record as a whole, including new and material evidence submitted to the Appeals Council. [See JS 4-5].

         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determines whether a claimant has any severe, medically determinable physical or mental impairments that meet the durational requirement. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.920(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). In assessing severity, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do “basic work activities.”[1] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a); Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686-687 (9th Cir. 2006). The ALJ may find a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments “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.” Webb, 433 F.3d at 686 (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289-1290 (9th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ must consider a claimant's subjective symptoms in determining severity, provided that the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181, at *2.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had a severe mood disorder, but that schizophrenia was “not established by the medical records” and therefore did not qualify as a severe impairment. [AR 19]. In assessing the nature and severity of plaintiff's mental impairment, the ALJ said that she gave no significant weight to the January 2014 opinion of plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Eunjoo Justice, M.D., and that she gave “considerable weight” both to the February 2013 opinion of the Commissioner's examining psychologist, Rosa M. Colonna, Ph.D., and to the March 2013 opinion of the nonexamining state agency physician, Kim Morris, Psy. D. [See AR 23-24, 26].

         Dr. Justice, a Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (“County Mental Health”) psychiatrist, completed an “Evaluation Form for Mental Disorders” giving plaintiff a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations and visual hallucinations. [AR 326-329]. Dr. Justice stated that plaintiff received treatment on a monthly basis from August 2012 through December 2013. [AR 326; see AR 254-287]. The ALJ noted that Dr. Justice found that

[plaintiff's] intellectual functioning was impaired due to auditory and visual hallucinations. Similarly, his memory, concentration, and [ability to perform] tasks were impaired. His affective status was typically aggressive, and his mood was generally angry. [Plaintiff] complained of social difficulties. His delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thoughts typically prevented him from doing normal things like bathing, eating, or running errands. He was socially withdrawn and isolated, and refused to go out of his home boundaries. He feared “aliens” and did not trust anyone. Dr. Justice opined [the plaintiff] appeared unable to adapt to work life situations. He had maladaptive behavior and aggression when agitated. He lacked skills to socialize with others and take direction from supervisors due to paranoia and suspicion of others' intentions.

[AR 23; see AR 328]. Dr. Justice prescribed plaintiff Latuda (lurasidone)[2] and Celexa (citaprolam)[3]. [AR 275, 282]. Dr. Justice also gave plaintiff a Global Assessment of Function (“GAF”) score of 46, which signifies serious symptoms, such as suicidal ideation, severe obsessional rituals, frequent shoplifting or any serious impairment in social, occupational, or school functioning, such has having no friends, being unable to keep a job and unable to work. [AR 329]. See American Psychiatric ...

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