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Kammerer v. Berryhill

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

February 23, 2018

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


          DOUGLAS F. McCORMICK United States Magistrate Judge.

         Evelyn Ann Kammerer (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this matter is dismissed with prejudice.



         Plaintiff applied for DIB on August 30, 2012, alleging a disability beginning March 10, 2009. Administrative Record (“AR”) 59. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR 89-99, 101-07. On March 9, 2015, a hearing was held in front of an ALJ. AR 26-58. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as a medical expert (“ME”) and a vocational expert (“VE”). See id.

         In a written decision issued March 27, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits. AR 9-25. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2014.” AR 14. Further, based on his review of the evidence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff possesses the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)

to perform light work . . . except she is limited to frequent overhead reaching with the non-dominant left upper extremity. She is capable of occasional pushing/pulling with the non-dominant left upper extremity. Further, she is able to perform occasional manipulation with the dominant right upper extremity including fine fingering and handling while being limited to less than occasional or rare manipulation with the left upper extremity. Lastly, she is restricted from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds as well as working at unprotected heights. AR 15.

         Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, and was not therefore disabled. AR 20-21.

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. AR 7-8. The Appeals Council denied review in July 2016, and the unfavorable ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984. This action followed.



         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred (1) in discounting the opinion of consultative examiner, Dr. Xiao-Quan Yuan, and (2) in the step-five analysis. Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 3. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in discounting Dr. Yuan's opinion, and any step-five error was harmless.

         A. Dr. Yuan's Opinion

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by according little weight to Dr. Yuan's opinion. JS at 3-8.

         1. 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);[2] 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 accompanied by adequate explanation, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, and consistency with the record as a whole, among other things. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         2. Relevant Facts

         a. Consultative Examiner Dr. Nahel Al Bouz On May 26, 2013, Dr. Bouz, a board certified internist, examined Plaintiff at the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) request. AR 628-33. Dr. Bouz observed “[r]eflex sympathetic dystrophy of the left hand status post two carpal tunnel surgery.” AR 632. Plaintiff had full range of motion of the left hand but significant hyperesthesia and weakness of the left handgrip. Id. Plaintiff was able to make a fist and oppose all fingers with both thumbs. Id.

         With regard to Plaintiff's right hand, Dr. Bouz observed “carpal tunnel syndrome” with irritated nerves on the right side and a positive carpel tunnel syndrome test. Id. “[T]here was no thenar or hypothenar muscular atrophy and [Plaintiff] was able to make a full fist and oppose all fingers with the right thumb. She had a good strength in the hand.” Id.[3] Dr. Bouz also diagnosed Plaintiff with hypertension and diabetes with normal foot examination. Id.

         Based on the examination, Dr. Bouz concluded that Plaintiff had several physical limitations: she could push, pull, lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and she could use her hands for fine and gross manipulation only frequently. AR ...

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