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Ellen G. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

September 11, 2019

ELLEN G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Ellen G. (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[1] The Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB alleging disability beginning on September 16, 2006. See Dkt. 17, Administrative Record (“AR”) 144-45. After her application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). See AR 72, 82, 91-92. In October 2013, after a hearing before an ALJ, Plaintiff received an unfavorable decision. See AR 25-39. On June 17, 2016, this Court remanded for further proceedings because the ALJ failed to consider whether Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome was a severe impairment. See AR 848-53.

         On August 23, 2017, a second ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. See AR 823-45. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 21, 2017. See AR 802-16.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, degenerative joint disease of the knees bilaterally, history of right wrist fracture, history of fracture of the cuboid bone, bilateral shoulder impingement, degenerative joint disease of the carpus, mildly displaced fracture of the distal radium, osteoarthritis of the first meta joint, degenerative disc disease, and neuropathy. See id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work. See AR 810. Based on the evidence of record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a data systems analyst and contract clerk/consultant technician through her date last insured (“DLI”) of December 31, 2011. See AR 816. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time between the alleged onset date and the DLI. See id.

         On November 21, 2017, the ALJ's decision on remand became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Dkt. 23, Joint Stipulation (“JS”) at 3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.984 (explaining that “when a case is remanded by a Federal court for further consideration, the decision of the administrative law judge will become the final decision of the Commissioner . . . unless the Appeals Council assumes jurisdiction of the case” within 60 days after the date of the ALJ's decision). This action followed. See Dkt. 1.


         The parties dispute whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of treating neurologist Dr. Jack Florin. See JS at 5.

         A. Applicable Law

         Three types of physicians may offer opinions in Social Security cases: those who treated the plaintiff, those who examined but did not treat the plaintiff, and those who did neither. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than an examining physician's opinion, which is generally entitled to more weight than a nonexamining physician's. See Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2014).

         When a treating or examining physician's opinion is uncontroverted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for “clear and convincing reasons.” Carmickle v. Comm'r, SSA, 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). Where such an opinion is contradicted, the ALJ may reject it for “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id The ALJ can meet this burden by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Cotton v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1403, 1408 (9th Cir. 1986). The weight accorded to a physician's opinion depends on whether it is consistent with the record and accompanied by adequate explanation, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, and the doctor's specialty, among other factors. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         B. Medical Opinions and ALJ Reasoning

         From October 1999 to May 2017, Dr. Florin treated Plaintiff for chronic migraine headaches and cervical dystonia. See AR 410-38, 1044-46, 1070. The record contains several opinions from Dr. Florin. Of most importance here, Dr. Florin completed an RFC questionnaire concerning Plaintiffs headaches on January 17, 2012, less than a month after Plaintiffs DLI. See AR 410-14. Dr. Florin diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic migraine and indicated that Plaintiff had 20 headache days per month. See AR 410. Plaintiffs headache symptoms included throbbing and constant pain at severity level 10 of 10, vertigo, nausea and vomiting, malaise, photosensitivity, visual disturbances, mood changes, mental confusion, inability to concentrate, and tenderness. See AR 410-11. Dr. Florin indicated that Frovatriptan reduced Plaintiffs migraine pain to severity level 7 of 10, and that cold packs and lying in a dark room also improved symptoms. See AR 411. Dr. Florin opined that Plaintiffs headaches precluded her from performing basic work activities, that Plaintiff was unable to work ...

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