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John C. S. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 12, 2019

JOHN C. S., [1]Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN L. STEVENSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff filed a Complaint on July 6, 2018, seeking review of the denial of his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. No. 1.) The parties have consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 8, 10.) On April 1, 2019, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation. (Dkt. No. 20 ("Joint Stip.").) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision with either an award of disability benefits or a remand of the case for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 29.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed or, in the alternative, that the matter be remanded for further administrative proceedings. (Id.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On September 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. (Administrative Record ("AR") 12, 168-71.) Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on July 3, 2013 due to "multiple back, spine and nerve injury" and further alleged that the "injury affects upper and lower extremities and neck.[2] (AR 85, 95.) After the Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application initially (AR 84) and on reconsideration (AR 94), Plaintiff requested a hearing (AR 122).

         At a hearing held on November 29, 2016, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (AR 38-83.) On June 16, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiffs application for a period of disability and DIB. (AR 12-28.) On May 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. (AR 1-7.)

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ initially found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018. (AR 14; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.) The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 3, 2013. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). (AR 17.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] is unable to climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, and unable to perform all other postural activities on more than an occasional basis. Further, [Plaintiff] is unable to work around unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, or vibration.

(AR 18) (footnote omitted). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a senior project manager, as generally performed in the national economy. (AR 27.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 28.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence is 'more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). "Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted).

         Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is "'inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination,' or that, despite the legal error, 'the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.'" Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         The parties raise three issues: (1) whether the ALJ "failed to give proper weight to treating physicians and to Plaintiffs subjective pain testimony, and failed to support his reliance on the opinion of the non-treating, non-examining State Agency consultants"; (2) whether the ALJ's "adverse credibility finding is legally and factually inadequate"; and (3) whether the ALJ "failed to support his finding that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work, or any other full-time work." (Joint Stip. at 3-4.)

         I. The ALJ Properly Weighed The Medical Opinions (Issue One).

         In Issue One, Plaintiff raises various arguments challenging the ALJ's assessments of the medical opinion evidence and his subjective pain testimony. (Joint Stip. at 4-10, 15-17.) The Court's analysis of Issue One focuses primarily on the ALJ's assessment of the medical opinion evidence. To the extent that Plaintiff raises any arguments that go solely to the ALJ's assessment of his subjective symptom testimony, they are addressed below in the Court's analysis of Issue Two.

         A. Legal Standard.

         There are three categories of physicians: treating physicians, examining physicians, and nonexammmg physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Treating physician opinions should be given more weight than examining or nonexammmg physician opinions. Orn, 495 F.3d at 632. This is because a treating physician "is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). If the treating physician's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only if the ALJ provides "clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record." Orn, 495 F.3d at 632. If the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only by "specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id. Similarly, an ALJ must satisfy the clear and convincing reasons standard to reject an uncontradicted examining physician's opinion or satisfy the specific and legitimate reasons standard to reject a contradicted examining physician's opinion. Carmickle v. Comm'r, SSA, 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008). Finally, the opinion of a non-treating or non-examining physician may serve as substantial evidence when it is consistent with independent clinical findings or other evidence in the record. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002).

         B. Analysis.

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assessments of his alleged physical and mental impairments. The Court considers each set of claims in turn.

         1. Physical Impairments.

         Plaintiffs challenge to the ALJ's assessment of his physical impairments appear to be based on opinions or treatment rendered by Dr. Newton (an examining physician), Dr. Ganjianpour (a treating ...


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