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Bagdasaryan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 28, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). For the reasons discussed below, the court will deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grant the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.[1]


         Plaintiff, born April 4, 1979, applied on November 13, 2012 for SSI, alleging disability beginning July 31, 2011. Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 184. Plaintiff alleged she was unable to work due to chest pain, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, depression, degenerative disk disease, degenerative joint disease, depression, anxiety, difficulty walking, panic attacks, chest pain, and headaches. AT 116. In a decision dated February 20, 2015, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled.[2] AT 20-29. The ALJ made the following findings (citations to 20 C.F.R. omitted):

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2011, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: affective disorder and anxiety disorder.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: frequent interaction with the public, co-workers and supervisors.
6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a home attendant. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 31, 2011, through the date of this decision.

AT 22-29.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed the following errors in finding plaintiff not disabled: (1) the ALJ improperly weighed the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in failing to find that plaintiff suffered from severe physical impairments at Step Two; and (3) the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiff's testimony.


         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) (citations 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).

         The record as a whole must be considered, Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986), and both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion weighed. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or nondisability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, see Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence. See Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).


         A. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly credit the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Bass, with respect to her physical abilities and limitations. Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ failed to credit Dr. Bass and two other physicians with respect to her mental limitations.

         The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual. Id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996).

         To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) contradictory opinions are 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 831. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for “specific and legitimate” reasons, that are supported by substantial evidence. 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 (e.g., 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)). In any event, the ALJ need not give weight to conclusory opinions supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (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, without other evidence, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.

         1. Physical Limitations

         In a July 2014 letter report to the ALJ, Dr. Bass stated that he had treated plaintiff for several years. AT 368. He cited “numerous medical problems, including spine degeneration, fibromyalgia, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, severe allergies, and trama-induced psychiatric symptoms.” AT 368. As to physical impairments, Dr. Bass reported that plaintiff had “degenerative spine disease in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions, as well as scoliosis.” AT 369. He reported arthritis and neck and back pain, the latter stemming in part from a 2013 motor vehicle accident. AT 369. Dr. Bass also reported that plaintiff suffered pain in both knees, ...

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