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Garcia v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 13, 2019

MARIA DOLORES GARCIA Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PARTIES' CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF Nos. 13, 16)

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act.[1] In her summary judgment motion, Plaintiff contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who issued the written decision erred by discrediting the opinions of two consultative examining psychiatrists without providing specific and legitimate reasons for doing so. Plaintiff argues the error was not harmless. The Commissioner opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

         After considering the parties' written briefing, the record, and the applicable law, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross- motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on April 5, 1963, has a high school education, and can read, speak, and understand English. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 2135, 1073, 563.) She has not worked since November 12, 2013, when she ended her eight-year career as a data entry clerk. (AT 2122.) On November 15, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, contending she was disabled due to, among other things, memory loss, bone disease, fibromyalgia, disc disease, numbness in the leg, and chronic pain. (AT 38, 564.) Plaintiff's application was denied in April 2014, and again upon reconsideration on July 17, 2014. (AT 412, 446.)

         Plaintiff, aided by an attorney, sought review of these denials with an ALJ. (AT 38.) At both the October 20, 2015 and May 10, 2016 hearings, Plaintiff testified as to her conditions; at the second hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) as to Plaintiff's ability to perform certain work. (Id.) On July 5, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled from her onset date through the present. (AT 38.) The ALJ found, among other things, that Plaintiff's mental impairments limited her to “simple, routine, and repetitive tasks . . . occasional changes in the work setting and occasional interaction with supervisors.” (AT 43.) The ALJ reached this conclusion by comparing Plaintiff's mental impairments to the listings, as well as by considering the medical evidence in the record-- including the 2014 and 2015 reports of Dr. Richwerger and Dr. Kalman, two examining psychiatrists. (AT 42-43.)

         On March 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-6.) Plaintiff then filed this action within sixty days requesting judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision; the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 1, 13, 16, 17.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision de novo, and should reverse “only if the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard.” Buck v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1048 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; i.e. “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Id. “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).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S FINDINGS (FIVE-STEP ANALYSIS)[2]

         As an initial matter, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act for purposes of DIB through December 31, 2018. (AT 40.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 12, 2013, Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: Cervical Spine Degenerative Disc Disease, Thoracic Spine Degenerative Disc Disease, Right Shoulder Impairment, Cognitive Disorder, Affective Disorder, Fibromyalgia, and Obesity. (AT 40.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Appendix 1”). (AT 41.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's medical records and the opinions of multiple examining physicians. (AT 41-43.) The ALJ specifically referenced the opinions of Dr. Richwerger and Dr. Kalman, two state consultative examining psychiatrists. As discussed more fully below, the ALJ accorded “great weight” to Dr. Richwerger's opinion and “[r]educed weight” to Dr. Kalman's opinion. (AT 41-42.)

         The ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work:

. . . except the claimant is limited to lifting-carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; is limited to sitting six hours and standing-walking six hours in an eight-hour workday; requires use of a cane; is limited to frequently pushing-pulling with the upper extremities; is limited to frequent foot control operation with the left and right feet; is limited to occasionally crawling, and climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; is limited to frequent balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and climbing ramps or stairs; is limited to frequently overhead reaching; is limited to frequent handling with the right hand; is limited to frequent fingering with the right hand; must avoid concentration exposure to cold and excessive vibrations; must avoid moderate exposure to hazards and unprotected heights; is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; is limited to occasional changes in the work setting; and is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors.

(AT 43.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 47.) However, at step five, the ALJ found that, in light of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and based on the VE's testimony, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (AT 47-48.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date (November 12, 2013) through the date of the ALJ's decision (July 5, 2016). (AT 48.)

         IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision, as detailed above, is not supported by substantial evidence. [3] Specifically, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erroneously discounted: (A) the opinion of Dr. Kalman, a psychiatrist who examined Plaintiff in December 2015--who opined that Plaintiff would have extreme limitations in remembering complex instructions and making judgments on complex work, and had a moderately impaired ability to interact with supervisors; and (B) a finding made by Dr. Richwerger, a psychiatrist who examined Plaintiff in February 2014--that Plaintiff had a moderate impairment in her ability to complete a normal workday and work week without interruption from a psychiatric condition.

         The Commissioner argues the ALJ sufficiently articulated his reasons for discounting these opinions, and ...


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