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Martinez v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 1, 2018




         Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 21) and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 33).


         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income social security benefits on August 30, 2011. In the application, plaintiff claims that disability began on July 1, 2003. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied. Following denial of reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on March 21, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mary M. French. In a July 23, 2014, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled based on the following relevant findings:

1. The claimant has the following severe impairment(s): diabetes, obesity, shoulder arthralgia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, degenerative joint disease of the knees, plantar fasciitis, mood disorder, and anxiety;
2. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations;
3. The claimant has the following residual functional capacity: he can perform light work; he is able to lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; he can occasionally engage in contact with supervisors and co-workers; he is able to engage in no more than incidental contact with the public; and
4. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and vocational expert testimony, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.

         After the Appeals Council declined review on November 13, 2015, this appeal followed.


         The court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it is: (1) based on proper legal standards; and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). It is “. . . such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971). The record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, must be considered and weighed. See Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. See 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 particular finding, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. See Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987). Therefore, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed, see Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002), 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).


         In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ failed to properly analyze the medical opinions; (2) the ALJ erroneously relied on reports from Drs. Colon and Weesner; (3) the ALJ ignored relevant imaging studies; (4) the ALJ erred in rejecting plaintiff's statements as not credible; (5) the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for rejecting lay witness evidence; and (6) the ALJ failed to adjudicate plaintiff's Title II claim.

         A. Evaluation of Medical Opinions

         The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (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, than the opinion of a non-treating professional. See id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996); Winans v. Bowen, 853 F.2d 643, 647 (9th Cir. 1987). The least weight is given to the opinion of a non-examining professional. See Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 & n.4 (9th Cir. 1990).

         In addition to considering its source, to evaluate whether the Commissioner properly rejected a medical opinion the court considers whether: (1) contradictory opinions are in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. The Commissioner may reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for “clear and convincing” reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. While a treating professional's opinion generally is accorded superior weight, if it is contradicted by an examining professional's opinion which is supported by different independent clinical findings, the Commissioner may resolve the conflict. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995). A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected only for “specific and legitimate” reasons supported by substantial evidence. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. This test is met if the Commissioner sets out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, states her interpretation of the evidence, and makes a finding. See Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751-55 (9th Cir. 1989). Absent specific and legitimate reasons, the Commissioner must defer to the opinion of a treating or examining professional. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31. The opinion of a non-examining professional, without other evidence, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. See id. at 831. In any event, the Commissioner need not give weight to any conclusory opinion supported by minimal clinical findings. See Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (rejecting treating physician's conclusory, minimally supported opinion); see also Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751.

         In this case, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions as follows:

As for the opinion evidence, the ultimate RFC in this case is based on the opinion of consultative orthopedist, Dr. Colon (Exhibit 25F). Dr. Colon's opinion is consistent with and supported by all of the diagnostic studies that confirmed only mild and normal results.
Minimal evidentiary weight is accorded the opinion of Dr. Tendall who examined the claimant in April of 2012 (Exhibit 14F). While Dr. Tendall placed extreme limitations on the claimant's physical functioning, his opinion is not supported by the medical evidence or other physical examinations.
Great evidentiary weight is accorded the State agency consultants Drs. Lochner and Weiss' analysis of the claimant's mental functioning (Exhibits 4A, 24F). The undersigned finds that the limitations caused by his severe mental impairments are consistent with the ultimate RFC in this case. Great evidentiary weight is accorded to Dr. Weesner's opinion in February of 2011. The doctor noted that the claimant was not honest and was exaggerating his symptoms (Exhibit 34F).
The undersigned accords minimal evidentiary weight to the February 2012 opinion of Dr. Cross who found claimant virtually incapable of working based upon his mental condition (Exhibit 11F). Dr. Cross' opinion is diminished by Dr. Weesner's findings. . . .

         According to plaintiff, the ALJ erred in the following ways with respect to analysis of the medical opinion evidence: (1) the ALJ ignored evidence from treating providers, Drs. Roth and Batin; (2) the ALJ erred by rejecting the report of examining psychologist, Kara Cross, Ph.D.; and (3) the ALJ erred by rejecting the report of examining physician, John Tendall, M.D.

         1. Drs. Roth and Batin

         Plaintiff argues that the record contains “progress notes, diagnoses, testing reports, and treatment records from two treating medical sources. . .” and that the ALJ erred by ignoring this evidence. Plaintiff identifies the following portions of the record relating to Dr. Roth: CAR 270-278, 308-313, 337-344, 407-414, 480-485, and 576-587.[1] As to Dr. Batin, plaintiff identifies a September 12, 2012, report, see CAR 467. According to plaintiff, the ALJ erred because she “engaged in no analysis of Dr. Roth's diagnoses and treatment. . . .” (emphasis added). Similarly, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred because she “failed to properly consider the diagnoses of treating physician Dr. Batin. . . .” (emphasis added). Plaintiff has not, however, identified any opinions rendered by these doctors relating to plaintiff's functional capabilities, and a review of the cited portions of the record does not reflect any such opinions. Because Drs. Roth and Batin did not render any opinions, the ALJ did not err with respect to these doctors.

         2. Dr. Cross

         In its entirety, plaintiff's argument as to Dr. Cross is as follows: “The ALJ adopts the opinions of Dr. Weesner over Dr. Cross without providing anything more than the unequivocally legally inadequate boilerplate assertion that ‘Dr. Cross' opinion is diminished by Dr. Weesner's findings.'” At the outset, the court cannot see how the ALJ's statement can be considered “boilerplate” given that it references specifics of the particular case, namely contradictory findings made by Dr. Weesner. In any event, the court finds no error. Here, Dr. Cross' opinion of an almost total ...

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