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Clark v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2017

DANIEL C. CLARK, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the decision of the 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.


         The parties are familiar with the procedural history of this case. [See JS 2]. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning February 1, 2012. His date last insured for social security disability insurance purposes was December 31, 2012. [JS 2]. In a written hearing decision that constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found plaintiff not disabled on the ground that he retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work as an appointment clerk and as an information clerk. [See JS 2; Administrative Record (“AR”) 11-19].

         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) (quoting Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)). “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. Social 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 Ci r. 1999)).


         Retrospective treating source opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erroneously rejected the July 8, 2014 opinion of Julie Monroe, D.O. [See JS 3-8].

         On July 8, 2014, Dr. Monroe, of Mountains Community Hospital Rural Clinic in Lake Arrowhead, California, completed a work-related physical functional assessment form indicating that plaintiff could perform less than the full range of sedentary work. Among other things, Dr. Monroe opined that plaintiff “needs crutches for ambulation” and would miss more than three days a month of work. [AR 475-477].

         The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform a restricted range of light work, including requiring he use of crutches for walking distances of 30 feet or more. [AR 15]. The ALJ did not identify Dr. Monroe by name; however, the ALJ cited her functional assessment and gave her opinion “little weight” because it was dated after the relevant period and did not assess plaintiff's capabilities during the relevant period. [AR 18]. The ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting an uncontroverted treating source opinion. 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 v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148-1149 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-831 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The ALJ articulated clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Dr. Monroe's controverted opinion. Standing alone, the mere fact that a medical opinion was rendered after expiration of a claimant's insured status does not render that opinion irrelevant. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 832; Smith v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 1222, 1225 (9th Cir. 1988). In this instance, however, the ALJ was justified in rejecting Dr. Monroe's opinion because she did not address plaintiff's functional capacity before his date last insured almost 18 months earlier. Dr. Monroe gave no indication that she treated or examined plaintiff before or even close in time to his date last insured, or that she had reviewed medical records from that period. Treatment notes from Mountains Community Hospital establish that Dr. Monroe first treated plaintiff on January 28, 2014, more than a year after his insured status expired. [See AR 479-481]. Moreover, where asked to identify the “medical findings” supporting her opinion, Dr. Monroe cited only plaintiff's “chronic knee [and] low back pain.” [AR 476]. She did not identify any objective or clinical findings supporting the disabling functional limitations she assessed as of July 2014.[1] Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in rejecting her opinion when assessing plaintiff's condition prior to December 31, 2012.. See Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 602 (9th Cir. 1998) (holding that the fact that a treating physician did not examine plaintiff until more than a year after expiration of her insured status, coupled with other contradictory evidence, fully supported the ALJ's rejection of the physician's “check-the-box form” stating that the claimant had been “continuously unable to work” since before her date last insured); see also Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957 (“The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings.”).

         Development of the record

         Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred in failing adequately to develop the record. More specifically, plaintiff argues that the ALJ “could have contacted Dr. Monroe in order to obtain clarification of her opinion regarding plaintiff's condition during the relevant time period.” [JS 4]. Plaintiff also contends that if the ALJ had called a medical expert to review the medical records in this case and testify as to ...

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