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Jimenez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff David Ruben Jimenez (“Plaintiff”) challenges the Commissioner's termination of his disability benefits. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.


         In December 2004, the Social Security Administration determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of January 2003 due to his mental condition. (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 17, 69, 131.) At that time, the Social Security Administration found Plaintiff had a depressive disorder with anxiety that met section 12.04A and B of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (See AR 17.) On April 11, 2013, it was determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled, pursuant to the Social Security Act, [1] as of April 2013, and was no longer entitled to disability benefits. (AR 69-72.) This determination was upheld upon reconsideration on September 18, 2013, after a case review by a Disability Hearing Officer. (AR 78-87, 89.) On September 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing, and a hearing was held on July 8, 2014. (AR 29, 93.) Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified, along with an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). (AR 31-55.) On July 25, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff's disability ended on April 11, 2013. (AR 12-24.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-4.) Plaintiff filed this action on January 6, 2016. (Dkt. No. 1.) The ALJ followed an eight-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff continued to be disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 CFR § 404.1594(f). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity through April 11, 2013. (AR 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that, as of April 11, 2013, Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has had significant medical improvement as of April 11, 2013.” (AR 18.) At step four, the ALJ found that the medical improvement was related to the ability to work because Plaintiff's impairments no longer met or medically equaled the same listing that was met at the time of the comparison point decision (“CPD”). (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ made no step five finding[2] and proceeded to step six, where the ALJ determined that Plaintiff continues to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that “caused more than minimal limitation in [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work activities.” (AR 18.)

         At step seven, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), such that: he could lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; he could stand and walk, with normal breaks, for a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday, and he could sit, with normal breaks, for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; he could occasionally walk over uneven terrain, climb ladders, work at heights, and stoop; and he could frequently perform all other postural activities. In the mental realm, the claimant was limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple, repetitive tasks with no more than occasional public contact.

         (AR 19.) Based on the Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not capable of performing past relevant work as a sales attendant, stock clerk, or orderly. (AR 22.) At step eight, “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, ” the ALJ found that Plaintiff “was able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy.” (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's disability had ended as of April 11, 2013. (AR 23.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to terminate benefits. A court must affirm an ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence, and if the proper legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         “[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather, a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the Secretary's conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ' the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.”). The Court may review only “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).


         Plaintiff raises four issues for review: (1) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's mental condition and limitations; (2) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's combination of impairments; (3) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's RFC; and (4) whether the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs. (Joint Stipulation (“JS”) 4-5, Dkt. No. 29.) Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's mental impairments, failed to consider the combined effects of Plaintiff's impairments, failed to properly assess Plaintiff's RFC, and failed to include all of Plaintiff's impairments in the hypothetical posed to the VE. (See JS 5-12, 21-23, 25-31, 33-36.) The Commissioner disagrees. (See JS 12-21, 23-25, 31-33, 36-37.)

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err In Concluding That Plaintiff's Impairments Did Not Meet Or Medically Equal The Severity Of A Listed Impairment

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discounting the report of treating psychologist Larisa Levin, M.D., and failed to consider the combined effect of all impairments when determining that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet a listing.[3](JS 6-9, 12, 22-23.)

         1. The ALJ Properly Discounted Dr. Levin's Opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinions of Dr. Levin, whose opinion would have established that Plaintiff's mental impairments met the criteria for a listed impairment. (JS 8.) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ provided “multiple valid, well-supported reasons” for discounting Dr. Levin's opinion. (JS 17-21.)

         a. Applicable Legal Standards

         Courts give varying degrees of deference to medical opinions based on the provider: (1) treating physicians who examine and treat; (2) examining physicians who examine, but do not treat; and (3) non-examining physicians who do not examine or treat. Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 692 (9th Cir. 2009). Most often, the opinion of a treating physician is given greater weight than the opinion of a non-treating physician, and the opinion of an examining physician is given greater weight than the opinion of a non-examining physician. See Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014). The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons to reject the ultimate conclusions of a treating physician. Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir.1988). However, an ALJ need not accept a treating physician's opinion that is “brief and conclusionary in form with little in the way of clinical findings to support [its] conclusion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting Young v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 963, 968 (9th Cir. 1986)). When a treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another opinion, the ALJ may reject it only by providing specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. Orn, 495 F.3d at 633; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). “An ALJ can satisfy the ‘substantial evidence' requirement by ‘setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.'” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012 (citation omitted).

         b. Discussion

         Dr. Levin completed a Report on Individual with Mental Impairment and a Mental RFC Assessment on May 21, 2014. (AR 467-71.) The report indicates that March 14, 2014 is the period of treatment and date of last exam. (AR 467.) Dr. Levin stated that Plaintiff always appeared “disheveled with poor grooming, ” and “always looks down.” (Id.) Dr. Levin noted that Plaintiff had difficulty getting out of bed daily due to “markedly severe depression.” (AR 467, 469.) Checking off items from a list, Dr. Levin indicated that Plaintiff had the following impairments: hallucinations; paranoid thinking; blunt affect; flat affect; depression; anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest in almost all activities; appetite disturbance with change in weight; sleep disturbance; emotional withdrawal and/or isolation; psychomotor agitation or retardation; decreased energy; feeling of guilt or worthlessness; difficulty concentrating or thinking; thoughts of suicide; memory impairment; apprehensive expectation; vigilance and scanning; a persistent irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation which results in a compelling desire to avoid the dreaded object, activity, or situation; recurrent severe panic attacks manifested by a sudden unpredictable onset of intense apprehension, fear, terror, and a sense of impending doom occurring on the average of at least once a week; and persistent disturbance of mood or affect. (AR 467-68.) Dr. Levin also indicated that there was evidence of Plaintiff's disorientation to time and place, memory impairment, and perceptual or thinking disturbances (hallucinations or delusions). (AR 469.) In the two-page, checklist-style Mental RFC Assessment, Dr. Levin indicated that Plaintiff was “markedly limited” in all 21 listed abilities. (AR 470-71.)

         The ALJ gave Dr. Levin's opinion “no significant weight, ” noting that it is “not supported by the longitudinal record” or other progress notes from the same treating facility. (AR 19-20; see AR 492-93.) Specifically, the ALJ noted that in February 2013, Plaintiff reported to his physician that he had “depression in past (mild now).” (AR 20, 422.) The treatment records also state that Plaintiff “used to see a psych & was on WellButrin - but stopped.” (AR 422.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff began seeking treatment at Hollywood Mental Health in November 2013 “after his benefits ceased and at his representative's referral.” (AR 20; see AR 475, 482.) Prior to that, Plaintiff stated that he had begun treatment at Didi Hirsch, but he did not continue because the facility wanted to admit him for a three-day evaluation. (AR 20, 497.) The ALJ noted that this was inconsistent with Didi Hirsch's summary in the record. (AR 20.) Didi Hirsch reported that Plaintiff had participated in individual therapy to increase problem solving and coping skills to reduce symptoms of depression. (AR 20, 508.) His last session was on September 16, 2013; Plaintiff's case was closed when he failed to show up to his next session two weeks later and did not respond to outreach attempts. (AR 20, 508.)

         The ALJ found that Dr. Levin's report was “brief and conclusory” because her notations “fail to relate her opinion to either objective findings or specific clinical observations.” (AR 20.) The ALJ rejected Dr. Levin's opinion because it was not supported by clinical findings and the checklist-style report did not explain the bases for her conclusions. (Id.) This is a specific and legitimate reason for the ALJ to discount Dr. Levin's opinion and instead give more weight to the consultative examiner, who “provided a much better explanation of her opinion” (id.). See Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751 (an ALJ may disregard a treating physician's opinion that is brief, conclusory, and lacks clinical findings); Crane v. Shalala, 76 F.3d 251, ...

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