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Patino v. Berryhill

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

July 26, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          DOUGLAS F. McCORMICK United States Magistrate Judge.

         Maria Guadalupe Flores Patino (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this matter is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1967. Administrative Record (“AR”) 311. On April 10, 2012, she filed applications for DIB and SSI. AR 117-18, 149, 311-25. After her applications were denied, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR 189-90. A hearing was held on February 7, 2014, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified through an interpreter. AR 48-76. A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. Id. On February 24, 2014, an ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's claims for benefits. AR 149-62. Plaintiff requested review, AR 290, and on July 30, 2015, the Appeals Council granted review and remanded for resolution of several listed issues, AR 168-74.

         A second hearing was held before a different ALJ on October 27, 2015. AR 31-47. Plaintiff, still represented by counsel, again testified through an interpreter, and a different VE testified. Id. In a written decision issued November 30, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. AR 15-24. After incorporating the summary of evidence set forth in the February 2014 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “status post L4-5, L5-S1 fusion in May 2013, with radiculopathy; multi-level degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; chronic pain syndrome; and depressive disorder NOS with anxiety.” AR 18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light work” with “the capacity to lift and carry 15 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; no limitations in sitting, standing, or walking; occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no more than frequent reaching, handling, and fingering; and performing no greater than simple routine tasks.” AR 21. Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a small-products assembler. AR 23.

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. AR 85. On March 3, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-8. This action followed.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of her treating psychologist, Gayle K. Windman, [2] and in omitting from her RFC assessment the portion of orthopedic surgeon Alan Moelleken's opinion limiting her to only occasional twisting. Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 4.

         A. Applicable Law

         Three types of physicians may offer opinions in Social Security cases: those who treated the plaintiff, those who examined but did not treat the plaintiff, and those who did neither. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c);[3] Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than an examining physician's opinion, which is generally entitled to more weight than a nonexamining physician's. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. When a treating or examining physician's opinion is uncontroverted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for “clear and convincing reasons.” See Carmickle v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31). Where such an opinion is contradicted, the ALJ must provide only “specific and legitimate reasons” for discounting it. Id.; see also Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014). Moreover, “[t]he 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.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); accord Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001). The weight accorded to a physician's opinion depends on whether it is consistent with the record and accompanied by adequate explanation, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, and the doctor's specialty, among other things. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c).

         B. Dr. Windman's Opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to give specific and legitimate reasons for discounting the controverted opinion of her treating psychologist, Dr. Windman. JS at 4-12. For the reasons discussed below, the Court agrees.

         1. Relevant Facts

         a. Plaintiff's Mental-Health Treatment Through Dr. Curits's Office and Dr. Windman's Opinion

         On March 2, 2011, William W. Kaiser, Ph.D., performed an initial evaluation and report as part of Plaintiff's workers'-compensation case for a work-related back injury. AR 478-93. Dr. Kaiser noted that Plaintiff was appropriately dressed and groomed. AR 482. She had “features of distraction caused by her pain when she related that the pain radiates into her legs”; her communication was “pressured” when talking about her symptoms; and she appeared disturbed, distressed, tense, and frustrated when talking about her physical pain and limitations. AR 482. She demonstrated “diminished cognitive functioning” and was “noted to be distracted and defective in concentration, attention, and short-term memory.” Id. Plaintiff did not have hallucinations, paranoia, or delusions. Id. Her insight and judgment were unimpaired. Id. Psychological testing showed mild-to-moderate depression, moderate anxiety, and excessive depression. AR 482-84. Dr. Kaiser diagnosed ...

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