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Borja v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 23, 2019




         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") erred by failing to articulate specific and legitimate reasons for discrediting (A) the opinions of three workers compensation physicians; and (B) the opinion of a treating physician. 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 Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.


         Plaintiff was 60 years old when on July 16, 2013, she stopped working as an administrative clerk (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 19, 25, 51.) On December 2, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB, contending she was disabled due to, among other things, carpal tunnel syndrome. (AT 56.) Plaintiffs application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration on July 17, 2014. (AT 58, 68.) Plaintiff, aided by an attorney, sought review of these denials with an ALJ. (AT 17.) At an August 9, 2016 hearing, Plaintiff testified about her condition, and the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert ("VE") regarding Plaintiffs ability to perform her past work. (AT 32-50.)

         On November 7, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled from her onset date through the present. (AT 14.) 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 19.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 16, 2013, Plaintiffs alleged disability onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome, status post bilateral open release, and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine. (AT 20.) However, the ALJ determined at step three that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in Appendix 1. (Id.) (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1). Based on this information, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, except that she could "frequently handle and finger bilaterally." (Id.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ first extensively detailed the differences between Plaintiffs allegations and her medical records. (AT 21-23.) The ALJ then considered and accepted some findings from three of Plaintiff s workers compensation physicians. (AT 23-24). However, the ALJ disregarded these physicians' conclusions given the differing policy goals of the two programs and inconsistency between Plaintiffs subjective complaints and the medical evidence. (Id.) Additionally, the ALJ gave "little weight" to the conclusions of Plaintiff s treating physician Dr. Birlew, finding them to be unsubstantiated. (AT 24.) The ALJ concluded at step four that Plaintiff was still capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative clerk. (AT 25.) This conclusion was so because her previous job did not require "the performance of work-related activities precluded by [her RFC]." (Id.)

         On January 4, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. (AT 1-3.) 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, 12, 17, 18.)


         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 where "the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Further, the court may not reverse the ALJ's decision on account of harmless error. Buck, 869 F.3d at 1048.


         Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision, as detailed above, is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to articulate specific and legitimate reasons for discrediting: (A) the three workers' compensation physicians-as the ALJ "simply lumped the three opinions together" instead of independently evaluating each; and (B) the treating opinion of Dr. Birlew-as his conclusion "relied on more than just Plaintiffs subjective accounts of her symptoms." (ECF No. 12-1 at p. 1.) Plaintiff seeks a remand for further proceedings. (Id.)

         The Commissioner disagrees, arguing that in light of the medical evidence, the ALJ sufficiently detailed why he (properly) discounted the conclusions of both Dr. Birlew and the three workers compensation physicians. (ECF No. 17 at pp. 6, 9.) Thus, the Commissioner contends the RFC (and decision as a whole) is supported by substantial evidence, which should result in the ALJ's opinion being affirmed. (Id.)


         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 ...

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