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Yang v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 19, 2019

VUE YANG, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTTRATTE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Vue Yang seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally argues that the decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) is based upon legal error and is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. (See ECF No. 18.) The Commissioner opposed plaintiff's motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 19.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 22.)

         After carefully considering the record and the parties' briefing, the court DENIES plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on xx/xx/1965; is able to communicate in English; and previously worked as a blind assembler.[2] (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 60-61, 79, 236.) On On February 11, 2014, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that his disability began on April 16, 2012. (AT 236-52.) Plaintiff claimed that he was disabled due to sleeping issues, depression, anxiety, stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), mental disorder, spurs in both feet, and high blood pressure. (AT 94.) After plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, an ALJ conducted a hearing on October 18, 2016. (AT 57-93.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision dated January 6, 2017, determining that plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act, from April 16, 2012, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 14-30.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on December 29, 2017. (AT 1-4.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action on February 27, 2018, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinion evidence; (2) whether the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiff's credibility; (3) whether the ALJ's residual functionary capacity (“RFC”) determination was without substantial evidentiary support; and (4) whether the ALJ erred at step five.[3]

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         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) (citation 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).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB and SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.[4] Preliminarily, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017. (AT 16.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 16, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bilateral calcaneal spurs, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. (Id.) However, at step three the ALJ concluded that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 17.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's RFC, finding that plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that plaintiff:

can stand for two hours in an eight-hour workday. He can walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday. He can stand and/or walk cumulatively for four hours in an eight-hour workday. He can sit without limitation with normal breaks. He cannot climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He must avoid work around hazardous machinery. The claimant can perform simple, repetitive tasks. He can maintain regular attendance pertaining to simple, repetitive tasks. He can perform work without special supervision. He can frequently interact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public. He can perform low stress, noncompetitive work not requiring production quotas or pacing.

(AT 19.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 28.) Yet, at step five, the ALJ found that, in light of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the vocational expert's testimony, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (AT 29) Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from April 16, 2012, through January 6, 2017. (AT 30.)

         B. Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations

         1. Whether the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinion evidence

         The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally speaking, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's opinion, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a non-examining physician's opinion. Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202.

         To evaluate whether an ALJ properly rejected a medical opinion, in addition to considering its source, the court considers whether (1) there are contradictory opinions 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 830-31. In contrast, a contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for “specific and legitimate” reasons. 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 (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)). The regulations require the ALJ to weigh the contradicted treating physician opinion, Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157, [5] except that the ALJ in any event need not give it any weight if it is conclusory and supported by minimal clinical findings. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (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, by itself, is insufficient to reject the opinion of a treating or examining professional. Lester, 81 F.3d at 831.

         Here, plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinions of Manuel Hernandez, M.D., Ian Johnson, M.D., and therapist Kao Vang, M.S.W., A.S.W.. (See ECF No. 18 at 12-15.)

         i. Manuel Hernandez, M.D.

         On June 6, 2014, plaintiff underwent a consultative examination with Dr. Hernandez as part of his applications for DIB and SSI. (AT 449-52.) In his decision, the ALJ accurately summarized Dr. Hernandez' findings and opinion:

On exam, Dr. Hernandez noted the claimant walked favoring his right foot avoiding putting weight on the right heel. His blood pressure was elevated. He had tenderness to palpation with deep palpation to his right heel. He could not perform tandem gait or balance on toes due to right heel pain. He did not require use of an assistive device for ambulation. Functionally, Dr. Hernandez opined the claimant had no exertional limitations for lifting and carrying. He could stand and/or walk for a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday. He is unlimited in his ability to sit with normal breaks. He must avoid climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should avoid hazardous machinery.

(AT 21; citing AT 449-52.)

         This opinion is contradicted by the opinions of the state agency reviewing physicians, D. Pong, M.D. and H. Jone, M.D., who each opined that plaintiff could stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday and could occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (AT 101-03, 128-30.)

         The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of the reviewing physicians because they were not supported by the medical evidence (AT 26), and great weight to the majority of Dr. Hernandez's opinion. (AT 25-26.) Yet, the ALJ gave little weight to a portion of Dr. Hernandez's opinion-that plaintiff could not stand and/or walk for more than two hours- because it was “too restrictive given the medical evidence of record, which shows conservative treatment and improvement, as well as evidence, which shows the claimant can perform basic activities of daily living.” (AT 25.) Instead, the ALJ concluded that the record supports a finding that plaintiff can stand and/or walk cumulatively for a total four hours in an eight-hour workday. (AT 19.)

         The ALJ's rejection of this portion of Dr. Hernandez's opinion is supported by substantial evidence in the record. (See AT 302-10, 468, 556-58, 624-26, 677, 696.) The ALJ accurately observed that “[r]ecords regarding the claimant's foot pain are sporadic and no records from treating podiatrists were submitted.” (AT 20.) Also, the “records show conservative treatment in the form of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication [Tramadol] and a boot for the right foot.” (AT 25, 556-58.) While plaintiff requested and was prescribed a cane, it “was related to his difficulty walking in [the] newly prescribed boot.” (AT 25, 468, 696.) Additionally, Dr. Hernandez only found tenderness to deep palpation on the heel examination and determined that plaintiff did not require the use of an assistive device for walking. (AT 25, 449-52.) In 2015 and 2016, plaintiff's treating physician noted that plaintiff walked with a normal gait and plaintiff reported he was generally doing well until he went walking with his wife. (AT 25, 624-26, 677.) “Most notably, treatment records do not show [plaintiff's] pain was such that increased treatment modalities were recommended. He was not diagnosed with or treated for chronic pain with narcotic pain medications.” (AT 25.)

         As to daily activities, the ALJ pointed out that plaintiff admitted that he could make simple meals; do light household chores and laundry; drive; go grocery shopping; run errands; and take his wife to appointments and his son to school. (AT 25, 302-10.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ rejected the severity of the standing and walking limitations opined by Dr. Hernandez based upon several specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1157.

         Indeed, even though plaintiff would interpret the evidence differently, the ALJ's reasonable and supported decision gives considerable weight to both plaintiff's subjective complaints and Dr. Hernandez's opinion, as evidenced by the RFC the ALJ adopted and the little weight the ALJ ...


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