United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT.
NOS. 18, 29
MARIA-ELENA JAMES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Julie A. Dodghson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
Defendant Nancy Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social
Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability
benefits. Pending before the Court are the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. PMSJ, Dkt. No. 18; DMSJ,
Dkt. No. 21. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 16-5, the motions
have been submitted on the papers without oral argument.
Having carefully reviewed the parties' positions, the
Administrative Record (AR), and the relevant legal authority,
the Court hereby GRANTS Plaintiff's
motion and DENIES Defendant's
cross-motion for the reasons set forth below.
SECURITY ADMINISTRATION PROCEEDINGS
October 25, 2013, Plaintiff filed a claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning on January
20, 2013. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied
Plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration,
finding that Plaintiff did not qualify for disability
benefits. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ALJ Wynne O'Brien Persons
conducted a hearing on June 4, 2015. Plaintiff testified in
person at the hearing and was represented by counsel, William
Tanoos. The ALJ also heard testimony from Vocational Expert
(VE) David Dettmer.
September 4, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision
finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 23-32.
regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of Social
Security provide for a five-step sequential analysis to
determine whether a Social Security claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The sequential
inquiry is terminated when “a question is answered
affirmatively or negatively in such a way that a decision can
be made that a claimant is or is not disabled.”
Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 504 (9th Cir.
1990). During the first four steps of this sequential
inquiry, the claimant bears the burden of proof to
demonstrate disability. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). At step five,
the burden shifts to the Commissioner “to show that the
claimant can do other kinds of work.” Id.
(quoting Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th
must first determine whether the claimant is performing
“substantial gainful activity, ” which would
mandate that the claimant be found not disabled regardless of
medical condition, age, education, and work experience. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b). Here, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff had not performed substantial
gainful activity since January 20, 2013. AR 25.
two, the ALJ must determine, based on medical findings,
whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or
combination of impairments as defined by the Social Security
Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If no severe
impairment is found, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, major
depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder,
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and left carpal
tunnel syndrome. AR 25.
ALJ determines that the claimant has a severe impairment, the
process proceeds to the third step, where the ALJ must
determine whether the claimant has an impairment or
combination of impairments that meet or equals an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (the
“Listing of Impairments”). 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment either
meets the listed criteria for the diagnosis or is medically
equivalent to the criteria of the diagnosis, he is
conclusively presumed to be disabled, without considering
age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(d). Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets
the listings. AR 26-27.
proceeding to step four, the ALJ must determine the
claimant's Residual Function Capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(e). RFC refers to what an individual can do
in a work setting, despite mental or physical limitations
caused by impairments or related symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). In assessing an individual's RFC, the ALJ
must consider all of the claimant's medically
determinable impairments, including the medically
determinable impairments that are nonsevere. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(e). Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the
RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels,
with non-exertional limitations: frequent left grasping,
limited to one- to two- step tasks; of task 5% of workday;
would be absent/tardy or need to leave early one time per
month; no fast-pace production or assembly work; and need for
low-stress work defined as work involving occasional
decisions and changes. AR 27-30.
fourth step of the evaluation process requires that the ALJ
determine whether the claimant's RFC is sufficient to
perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 404.1520(f). Past relevant work is work
performed within the past 15 years that was substantial
gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for the
claimant to learn to do it. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1).
If the claimant has the RFC to do his past relevant work, the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could not perform past relevant work as secretary or typist.
fifth step of the analysis, the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy which the
claimant can perform consistent with the claimant's RFC,
age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(g); 404.1560(c). The Commissioner can meet this
burden by relying on the testimony of a vocational expert or
by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2. Lounsburry v.
Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006). Here,
based on the VE's testimony, Plaintiff's age,
education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff could work as a hand packager, laundry worker, and
scrap sorter, all occupations that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy. AR 30-31.
decision became final when the Appeals Council declined to
review it on March 6, 2017. AR 1-4. Having exhausted all
administrative remedies, Plaintiff commenced this action for
judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On
November 20, 2017, Plaintiff filed the present Motion for
Summary Judgment. On March 20, 2018, after the parties
stipulated to several extensions, Defendant filed a
Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff filed her reply
on April 10, 2018. Dkt. No. 32.
Court has jurisdiction to review final decisions of the
Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the findings are
“supported by substantial evidence and if the [ALJ]
applied the correct legal standards.” Holohan v.
Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation
omitted). “Substantial evidence means more than a
scintilla but less than a preponderance” of evidence
that “a reasonable person might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278
F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Flaten v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453,
1457 (9th Cir. 1995)). The court must consider the
administrative record as a whole, weighing the evidence that
both supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.
McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 602 (9th Cir.
1989). However, “where the evidence is susceptible to
more than one rational interpretation, ” the court must
uphold the ALJ's decision. Magallanes v. Bowen,
881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). Determinations of
credibility, resolution of conflicts in medical testimony,
and all other ambiguities are to be resolved by the ALJ.
the harmless error rule applies where substantial evidence
otherwise supports the ALJ's decision. Curry v.
Sullivan, 925 F.2d 1127, 1131 (9th Cir. 1990). A court
may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error
that is harmless. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104,
1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Stout v. Comm'r, Soc.
Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055-56 (9th Cir. 2006)).
“‘[T]he burden of showing that an error is
harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the
agency's determination.'” Id. (quoting
Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)).
A. Weighing Opinion of Treating Physician
“Cases in [the Ninth Circuit] distinguish among the
opinions of three types of physicians: (1) those who treat
the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but
do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3)
those who neither examine nor treat the claimant
(nonexamining physicians).” Lester v. Chater,
81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, an opinion of a
treating physician should be favored over that of a
non-treating physician. Id. at 830-31. However, a
treating physician's opinion “is not binding on an
ALJ with respect to the existence of an impairment or the
ultimate determination of disability.” Tonapetyan
v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1148 (9th Cir. 2001). The
opinion of an examining physician generally is entitled to
greater weight than the opinion of a non-examining physician,
Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198
(9th Cir. 2008), and the “opinion of a non-examining
physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence
that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an
examining physician or a treating physician, Lester,
81 F.3d at 831. See also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(3) (“[B]ecause nonexamining sources have no
examining or treating relationship with you, the weight we
will give their medical opinions will depend on the degree to
which they provide supporting explanations for their medical
order to reject the “uncontradicted opinion of a
treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and
convincing reasons that are supported by substantial
evidence.” Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1198 (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). “If a treating
or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another
doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing
specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence.” Id. (citation omitted).
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). “The ALJ must do more than offer
 conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and
explain why they, rather than the doctors', are
correct.” Id. (citation omitted). An ALJ errs
when he or she does not explicitly reject a medical opinion
or set forth specific, legitimate reasons for crediting one
medical opinion over another. See Nguyen v. Chater,
100 F.3d 1462, 1464 (9th Cir. 1996). In other words, it is
error for an ALJ not to offer a substantive basis before
assigning little weight to the medical opinion. See
Id. Generally, the SSA will give greater weight to an
opinion that is more consistent with the record as a whole.
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4).
Dr. Michael Ciranni, Psy. D.
Ciranni began treating Plaintiff on November 22, 2011. AR
264. He noted a history of bipolar disorder and the fact
Plaintiff was being seen by another treater for ongoing
medication management. Dr. Ciranni prescribed a refill of
Seroquel and scheduled a follow-up assessment. On December 2,
2011, Dr. Ciranni conducted a medication assessment. He noted
Plaintiff's history of past psychiatric treatment,
including: inpatient treatment once in the 1990s and once in
2003 for mania “in the absence of substance abuse,
” as well as continuous outpatient therapy beginning
before 2003 and continuing through the date of the
assessment. AR 267. Plaintiff had a more recent trauma in
2009 due to waking up next to her partner after he had died
in his sleep due to sleep apnea; this manifests as feelings
of panic, avoidance of sleeping, sleeping on an incline,
difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, and exaggerated
started response. Id. Plaintiff's prescriptions
have included neuroleptics, mood stabilizers,
antidepressants, anxiolytics, and psychostimulants. AR
Ciranni noted Plaintiff had some symptoms that may be
congruent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD), including poor follow through on instructions,
difficulty organizing, easily distracted, forgetful in daily
activities, as well as hyperactive symptoms of excess
fidgeting, restlessness, talking excessively, blurting out
answers, and problems with conversational turn-taking. AR
269. Dr. Ciranni opined that these “may have been
contributing to impairment in occupational functioning, in
terms of multiple job losses as office assistant, and do not
seem to appear exclusively during manic episodes.”
Id. Plaintiff did not meet the full criteria for
ADHD, and Dr. Ciranni noted there was some overlap of
symptoms with her anxiety disorder. Id. He added a
provisional diagnosis of ADHD NOS (not otherwise specified),
in partial remission.
January 20, 2012, Dr. Ciranni noted he had spoken with
Plaintiff's counselor at the Marin Treatment Center
(MTC), and learned of an incident where Plaintiff
“appeared manic, [and] apparently threw a glass of
water at someone, behavior that could have led to her being
dismissed from MTC, except for her long history with them and
known bipolar diagnosis.” AR 278. When discussing the
incident with Dr. Ciranni ten days later, Plaintiff
acknowledged she did not react as well as she should have,
and explained the atypical behavior was caused by stress due
to having her car impounded. AR 281. Dr. Ciranni observed
MTC's concern for her reflected her behavior that day
represented a deviation from normal rather than her
characteristic personality. AR 281.
March 13, 2012, Dr. Ciranni noted that Plaintiff had gotten
into an “interpersonal conflict” with one of her
mother's friends after the friend criticized Plaintiff
for coughing, and her mother uninvited her to gatherings of
friends at her home as a result. AR 285.
14, 2012, MTC contacted Dr. Ciranni again to inform him they
had noticed Plaintiff getting more manic, “in context
of missing does of Seroquel and decreasing Lithium
dose.” AR 291. At an appointment with Plaintiff the
following day, Dr. Ciranni noted Plaintiff appeared
“more pressured” and she reported having panic
attacks after she moved her Seroquel dose to the afternoon;
as a result, she started skipping Seroquel doses and
decreasing her Lithium dose. Dr. Ciranni and Plaintiff agreed