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Mills v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 8, 2017

CAROL MILLS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Carol Mills seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally argues that the decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) is based upon legal error and is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. (See ECF No. 12.) The Commissioner opposed plaintiff's motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 13.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 14.)

         After carefully considering the record and the parties' briefing, the court recommends that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED, the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment be GRANTED, and the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on November 6, 1967 and has a high school education.[2](Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 35, 196.) On April 2, 2013, plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that her disability began on October 25, 2012. (AT 196-98, 207.) Plaintiff claimed that she was disabled due to spondylosis with myelopathy, depressive disorder, hyperlipidemia, hypertensive disorder, anemia, migraine, obesity, asthma, spinal stenosis, and spinal fusion. (AT 282.) After plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, an ALJ conducted a hearing on March 5, 2015. (AT 48-98.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision dated May 4, 2015, determining that plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act, from October 25, 2012, the alleged onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 30-39.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on December 20, 2016. (AT 1-5.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action on February 18, 2017, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly weighed opinion evidence in the record and (2) whether the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiff's credibility.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). “The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

         “[A] reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency.” Sec. & Exch. Comm'n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947). At the same time, in the context of Social Security appeals, “[a]s a reviewing court, we are not deprived of our faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion. It is proper for us to read the paragraph . . . and opinion, and draw inferences . . . if those inferences are there to be drawn.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[3] Preliminarily, the ALJ determined that plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017. (AT 32.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 25, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the following severe impairment: cervical fusion residuals. (Id.) However, at step three the ALJ concluded that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 34.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that plaintiff could perform a wide range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that plaintiff:

is limited to lifting-carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; is limited to sitting six hours and standing-walking six hours in an eight-hour workday; cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; is limited to occasional handling and fingering with the left hand; is not able to reach overhead with the left arm; is limited to rotating her neck no more than 120 degrees occasionally; and has full range of motion of her trunk (75 degrees in both directions).

         (AT 34.) At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 37.) However, at step five, the ALJ found that, in light of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the vocational expert's testimony, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed. (AT 38.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from October 25, 2012 through May 4, 2015. (AT 38-39.)

         B. Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations

         1. Whether the ALJ improperly weighed opinion evidence in the record

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error when evaluating the medical opinions in the record because the ALJ “gave no reasons to discount the lifting restrictions or less than occasional handling and fingering limitations” opined by Dr. Pauline Perez, and because the ALJ failed to address the opinion of Dr. Ben Waldau. (ECF No. 12 at 10-11.)

         The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally speaking, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's opinion, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a non-examining physician's opinion. Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202.

         To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) there are contradictory opinions in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. An ALJ may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for “specific and legitimate” reasons. Id. at 830. While a treating professional's opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by a supported examining professional's opinion (supported by different independent clinical findings), the ALJ may resolve the conflict. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)). The regulations require the ALJ to weigh the contradicted treating physician opinion, Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157, [4] except that the ALJ in any event need not give it any weight if it is conclusory and supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 1999) (treating physician's conclusory, minimally supported opinion rejected); see also Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. The opinion of a non-examining professional, by itself, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.

         Additionally, a conclusory statement by a treating physician that a claimant is disabled is not binding on the Commissioner. As the SSA's regulations explain:

We are responsible for making the determination or decision about whether you meet the statutory definition of disability. In so doing, we review all of the medical findings and other evidence that support a medical source's statement that you are disabled. A statement by a medical source that you are “disabled” or “unable to work” does not mean that we will determine that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). “In addition, the regulations give more weight to opinions that are explained than to those that are not.” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(3)).

         i. Opinions of Dr. Pauline Perez

         Dr. Perez provided three different medical source statements, regarding plaintiff's limitations. (See AT 603-05, 613-15, 687-89.) Each of these opinions was presented on a conclusory check-box form, with only minimal explanation. (Id.) Because these opinions were conclusory and supported by minimal clinical findings, the ALJ was not required to give them any weight. See Meanel, 172 F.3d at 1114. However, while the ALJ did not adopt all of the limitations opined by Dr. Perez, he did not entirely discount Dr. Perez's opinions either.

[The ALJ gave] some weight to the general conclusions regarding limits on lifting and using her arms to reach and manipulate. [Concluding that] her extreme limitations, such as never being able to bend and zero percent of the left hand for handling and no reaching bilaterally are not at all supported by the treatment notes or other evidence in the ...

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