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Reynolds v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 28, 2017

LARISSA L. REYNOLDS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ALKA SAGAR UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         PROCEEDINGS

         On September 1, 2016, Plaintiff Larissa L. Reynolds (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and supplemental security income (SSI). (Docket Entry No 1). On January 23, 2017, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint, (Docket Entry No. 17), and the Certified Administrative Record (“AR”). (Docket Entry No. 18). The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket Entry Nos. 10, 14). On April 18, 2017, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”), setting forth their respective positions on Plaintiff's claims. (Docket Entry No. 19).

         For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         Plaintiff asserts disability beginning October 12, 2008, based on alleged physical and mental health impairments related to anxiety and back and wrist pain. (AR 165). On December 2, 2011, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Tamara Turner-Jones, examined the record and heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”). (AR 427-65). On January 27, 2012, ALJ Turner-Jones denied Plaintiff benefits in a written decision (“Prior Decision”). (AR 511-28). On May 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint in United States District Court to appeal her denial of disability. (Reynolds v. Colvin, 5:13-cv-00894-SH, Docket Entry No. 1). On February 19, 2014, United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Hillman reversed and remanded the Prior Decision with instructions to give specific and legitimate reasons to reject the opinion of consultative examiner, Ezzat Abdelmalek, M.D. (See AR 548-52). On July 29, 2015, ALJ Andrew Verne (“the ALJ”) held a hearing, which was continued so that Plaintiff could obtain counsel. (AR 466-74). On January 27, 2016, the ALJ examined the record and heard testimony from Plaintiff and vocational expert, Victoria Rei (“VE”). (AR 475-510). On May 18, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff benefits in a written decision. (AR 405-19).

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential process in evaluating Plaintiff's case. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset date. (AR 407). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, lumbar myofascial strain, cervical myofascial strain, anxiety disorder, “rule out bipolar disorder, ” panic disorder, major depressive disorder, and social phobia. (AR 407). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listing found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 408).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to perform medium work, but can lift 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand, walk, and/or sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl frequently; use her right hand for fine and gross manipulation frequently; avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants, such as dust, fumes, gases, and odors; sustain attention and concentration, persistence, and pace in at least two-hour blocks of time; is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements involving only simple work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes; is limited to occasional interaction with the public and coworkers; and is limited to work that is isolated with only occasional supervision. (AR 409).

         In making this finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's allegations concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were less than fully credible. (See AR 411). The ALJ gave “some weight” to the lay witness opinions of Timothy Lampie, Plaintiff's husband, and Susan Reynolds, Plaintiff's mother. (AR 412).

         The ALJ then considered the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and nontreating physicians. In considering Plaintiff's physical limitations, the ALJ gave “great weight” to the opinion of orthopedic consultative examiner, Payam Moazzaz, M.D., who opined that Plaintiff could perform a range of medium work, (AR 318-23), and the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions of consultative examiner, Terrance P. Flanagan, M.D., and State agency physicians, Susan Lee, M.D., R. Paxton, M.D., and K. Loomis, M.D., who all opined that Plaintiff had nonsevere limitations, (AR 296-305, 338-40, 415).

         In considering Plaintiff's mental limitations, the ALJ gave “little weight” to psychiatric consultative examiner, Sohini P. Parikh, M.D., and State agency psychologist, R. Paxton, M.D., who opined that Plaintiff had nonsevere mental limitations. (AR 278-85, 415). The ALJ gave “some weight” to the opinion of State agency psychologist, K. Loomis, M.D., adopting Dr. Loomis's opinion that Plaintiff could perform simple tasks with limited public contact. (AR 324-37, 415).

         The ALJ also gave “some weight” to the opinion of psychiatric consultative examiner, Ezzat Abdelmalek, M.D. (AR 416). In a July 20, 2010, psychiatric evaluation, Dr. Abdelmalek opined that Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and perform instructions was fair for simple tasks and poor for complex tasks; maintain focus and concentration was poor; interact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors was poor; comply with job rules, such as safety and attendance, was poor; respond to changes in a routine work setting was severely impaired; respond to work pressure in a usual work setting was poor; and her daily activities were fair. (AR 313-17). The ALJ rejected Dr. Abdelmalek's opinion that Plaintiff was severely impaired in her ability to respond to changes in a routine work setting because “subsequent medical records show that [Plaintiff] had some improvement of her symptomology with medication and Plaintiff's “activities of daily living, such as her ability to care for her children despite her conditions, suggests that her ability to respond to change is not as limited as indicated by Dr. Abdelmalek.” (AR 416).

         The ALJ gave “some weight” to the opinion of psychological consultative examiner, Clifford Taylor, M.D. (AR 416, 713-720). The ALJ rejected Dr. Taylor's opinion that Plaintiff is only mildly limited in her interaction with the public because the ALJ gave Plaintiff “the benefit of the doubt” in limiting Plaintiff's contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public considering Plaintiff's high anxiety during Dr. Abdelmalek's examination and Plaintiff's subjective complaints of social phobia. (AR 416).

         The ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Monica Gordon, M.D. (AR 416). In a January 27, 2011, medical opinion form, Dr. Gordon opined that Plaintiff was “limited but satisfactory” in her ability to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; “seriously limited but not precluded” in her ability to carry out very short and simple instructions, ask simple questions or request assistance, be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions, set realistic goals or make plans independently of others, maintain socially appropriate behavior, and use public transportation; “unable to meet competitive standards” in her ability to remember work-like procedures, understand and remember very short and simple instructions, maintain attention for 2-hour segments, maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary tolerances, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychological symptoms, perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, get along with co-workers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, understand and remember detailed instructions, deal with stress of semiskilled and skilled work, interact appropriately with the general public, and travel in unfamiliar places; and had “no useful ability to function” in working in coordination with others without being unduly distracted and dealing with normal work stress. (AR 399-400). Dr. Gordon explained her reasoning for the above assigned limitations in stating, “[t]he patient has severe anxiety that is worse around people. Recently she is experiencing odd head sensations while in public. She has thoughts and images of bad things happening to her family. Due to her symptoms has difficulty concentrating and remembering things. She even has difficulty remembering her app[ointmen]ts despite reminders.” (AR 400). Dr. Gordon concluded that Plaintiff would miss more than four days of work per month. (AR 400).

         In a February 4, 2016, medical opinion form, Dr. Gordon opined the following somewhat less restrictive limitations: Plaintiff was “unlimited or very good” in her ability to be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions; “limited but satisfactory” in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions, ask simple questions or request assistance, maintain socially appropriate behavior, and adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; “seriously limited but not precluded” in her ability to remember work-like procedures, maintain attention for 2-hour segments, make simple work-related decisions, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, understand and remember detailed instructions, set realistic goals or make plans independently of others, interact appropriately with the general public, and travel in unfamiliar places; “unable to meet competitive standards” in her ability to maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary, usually strict tolerances, work in coordination with or proximity to others without being unduly distracted, perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, get along with co-workers or peers without unduly distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, carry out detailed instructions, and use public transportation; and had “no useful ability to function” in completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, dealing with normal work stress, and dealing with the stress of semiskilled and skilled work. (AR 772-73).

         The ALJ found that Dr. Gordon “assessed limitations that would essentially preclude [Plaintiff from] all work.” (AR 416). The ALJ rejected Dr. Gordon's opinion because she “merely checked a box on a form in reaching this conclusion”; Dr. Gordon's statements were vague because she did not provide objective clinical findings to support her opinions; and the record did not support such restrictive limitations because “it would be reasonable to assume that an individual with such severe limitations would require hospitalization . . . ”; and Plaintiff engaged in normal activities of daily living, such as caring for her three children, which the ALJ considered as evidence of emotional stability. (AR 416).

         The ALJ also gave “some weight” to the opinion of medical expert, Marcus Anderson, M.D. (AR 417). Dr. Anderson opined that Plaintiff was mildly impaired in her ability to understand and perform simple instructions; moderately impaired in her ability to perform complex instructions; mildly impaired in her ability to interact appropriately with co-workers, supervisors, and the public; and moderately impaired in her ability to tolerate basic work-related stressors. (AR 820). The ALJ found that Dr. Anderson's opinion was generally consistent with “objective medical findings showing evidence of psychomotor slowing and impaired ability to focus.” (AR 417). The ALJ rejected Dr. Anderson's opinion that Plaintiff is only mildly impaired in her ability to appropriately interact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public, instead ...


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