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Gomez v. Berryhill

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

November 15, 2017

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


          Douglas f. Mccormick, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Louis Gomez (“Plaintiff”) appeals the Commissioner's final decision denying his 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.



         In December 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI alleging disability beginning on November 1, 2010. Administrative Record (“AR”) 182-95, 204-06. After his applications were denied, he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR 129-46, 208. At his May 7, 2014 hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel. AR 7.

         On July 22, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits. AR 50, 54-55. He found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified, polysubstance abuse in remission, and reduced right-eye vision. AR 55. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. AR 55-56. He noted that Plaintiff had moderate restrictions in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace. AR 56. He found no episodes of decompensation for an extended duration while Plaintiff complied with medical advice. Id.

         Despite those impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he is able to perform simple, routine tasks not requiring binocular vision, with occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors.” AR 57.

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a warehouse worker, as his employer had accommodated his vision problems. AR 65. In the alternative, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to find that Plaintiff could perform the requirements of representative unskilled occupations including vegetable harvester and grocery bagger. Id. Noting that Plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was therefore not disabled. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, which became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-5; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984, 416.1584. Plaintiff then sought review in this Court. Dkt. 1.



         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly (1) rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, (2) discredited testimony by Plaintiff and statements from his wife, and (3) failed to base his step two and RFC findings on substantial evidence. See Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 2. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasons for rejecting the treating psychiatrist's opinion but validly discredited Plaintiff's testimony and his wife's statements. Because the Court finds that the ALJ's error warrants remand, it does not reach whether substantial evidence supported the RFC findings.

         A. Plaintiff's Treating Psychiatrist

         1. Relevant Facts

         Dr. Solomon Mirakhor saw Plaintiff sixteen times between February 16, 2012 and January 9, 2014. AR 295-314, 362-73. The record includes five medical source statements from Dr. Mirakhor. On December 5, 2011, he stated that Plaintiff had a chronic and lifelong mental impairment that rendered him unable to work. AR 374. On May 31, 2012, he noted that Plaintiff had a panic disorder without agoraphobia and a major depressive disorder with psychotic features. AR 292. Dr. Mirakhor opined that Plaintiff was making “good progress” in functioning and taking his medication, that he had “good” abilities to carry out simple and complex instructions, maintain concentration, and perform activities within a regular schedule, and that he had “fair” abilities to complete a normal work schedule and respond appropriately to changes in a work setting. AR 294.

         On September 24, 2012, Dr. Mirakhor noted that Plaintiff had seventeen signs and symptoms of mental impairments, Plaintiff's prognosis was guarded, and he would likely miss more than three days of work per month due to his mental impairments. AR 284-87. Dr. Mirakhor also determined that Plaintiff had “fair” abilities, meaning that his “[a]bility to function in this area is significantly limited . . . but not precluded” in fifteen work functioning areas and that he had “[n]o useful ability to function” in five other work functioning areas. AR 287-90. On May 8, 2014, Dr. Mirakhor found that Plaintiff was “markedly limited” in both his ability to withstand work pressure and interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public. AR 376. He also found that Plaintiff was “moderately limited” in his ability to carry out simple and complex instructions and concentrate for two-hour increments. AR 376. In a medical opinion from May 8, 2014, Dr. Mirakhor determined that Plaintiff was precluded from working fifteen percent or more of an eight-hour workday in 24 areas of work functioning. AR 378. The VE at Plaintiff's hearing testified that such limitations would preclude all work. AR 37-39.

         Dr. Lee, a consulting examiner, conducted a psychiatric examination of Plaintiff on April 22, 2012. AR 276. His notes include Plaintiff's report of “a long history of anxiety, anger issues, mood swings, and irritability” and monthly appointments with Dr. Mirakhor. Id. Plaintiff also reported experimenting with “marijuana and amphetamines around the age of 18, ” and that “he had ‘a bad trip' . . . and he experienced vivid hallucinations, both visual and auditory, as well as intense paranoid delusions . . . .” AR 277. Plaintiff told Dr. Lee that he feared that this “damaged [his] brain.” Id. He further reported that he had been “sober from marijuana and amphetamines for the past ‘several years, '” and had not been to a drug rehabilitation program. Id. Dr. Lee noted that “[t]here was no evidence that the [Plaintiff] was under the influence of illicit substances during this interview.” AR 278. He also documented reports of frequent “vivid auditory and visual hallucinations since the age of 18, ” as recently as two weeks before the examination. AR 279.

         Dr. Lee diagnosed Plaintiff with a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified and drug abuse in remission. AR 280. He determined that the symptoms were “relatively mild-to-moderate, ” the problem was “treatable, ” and the likelihood of recovery was “fair-to-good.” AR 280. He opined that Plaintiff's “psychiatric symptoms are related to his history of amphetamine abuse, even though [Plaintiff] reports that he has been sober for several years.” AR 280. He found Plaintiff mildly impaired in his ability to interact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public, work consistently without special instructions, maintain ...

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