United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER RE SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 13,
DONATO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Coleman challenges a decision by a Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) that denied, in part, his application for
supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title
XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties filed
cross-motions for summary judgment. Dkt. Nos. 13, 14.
Plaintiff also filed a reply brief in opposition to
defendant’s cross-motion and in support of his motion
for summary judgment. Dkt. No. 16. Plaintiff’s motion
is granted, and the case is remanded to the SSA for further
proceedings consistent with this order. Defendant’s
motion is denied.
decision dated June 7, 2017, the ALJ found that Coleman
suffers from a number of severe physical and mental
impairments, including anxiety disorder, depressive disorder,
diabetes mellitus, peripheral arterial disease, recurrent low
back strain/sprain, degenerative arthritis of the left
shoulder and a frozen left shoulder. Administrative Record
(“AR”) 13. However, the ALJ concluded that
Coleman was not disabled until February 7, 2017, when
worsening physical symptoms necessitated the use of a cane.
AR 19, 21. After this date, the ALJ determined that “a
finding of ‘disabled’ is directed by
Medical-Vocational Rule 202.04.” AR 21.
decided that Medical-Vocational Rule 202.04 did not direct a
finding of disabled before February 7, 2017, because he found
Coleman was capable of medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967(c), before that date. AR 15. The
Medical-Vocational Rule requires that a claimant of
Coleman’s age, education and previous work experience
be found disabled if he has a residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) limited to light work as a result of
medically determinable impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App. 2. In relevant part, light work “involves
lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent
lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10
pounds.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b).
circuit, an ALJ’s decision to deny benefits “will
only be disturbed if it is not supported by substantial
evidence or it is based on legal error” that is not
harmless. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th
Cir. 2005) (internal quotation and citation omitted). In this
case, the ALJ’s decision suffers from legal error that
is not harmless.
erred by failing to provide specific and legitimate reasons,
supported by substantial evidence in the record, for
according more weight to the opinions of Dr. K. Rudito and
Dr. A. Ahmed, who never examined Coleman, and Dr. Eugene
McMillan, a medical consultant, than that of Dr. H. Geoffrey
Watson, Coleman’s treating physician. Our circuit
distinguishes among the opinions of three types of
physicians: (1) treating physicians; (2) examining
physicians; and (3) nonexamining physicians. Garrison v.
Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014). As a general
rule, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating
physician than to that of an examining physician, and more
weight in turn is given to the opinion of an examining
physician than to that of a nonexamining physician.
Id. Even where, as here, a treating
physician’s opinion is contradicted by another doctor,
the Commissioner may not fail to give a treating
physician’s opinion substantial weight without
providing specific and legitimate reasons supported by
substantial evidence in the record for doing so. Bray v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228
(9th Cir. 2009). The ALJ can meet that burden by
“setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the
facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his
interpretation thereof, and making findings.”
Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir.
2002) (internal quotation and citation omitted).
case, the ALJ only assigned “partial weight to the
medical source statements completed by the claimant’s
treated [sic] medical care providers.” AR 18. The
ALJ’s rejection of Coleman’s treating physicians,
including Dr. Watson, was remarkably terse. The ALJ argued
that all these medical opinions were “overly
restrictive, not accompanied by any treatment notes and are
not consistent with the evidence as a whole.” AR 18.
Dismissing Dr. Watson’s medical opinion as
“overly restrictive” was error because
“boilerplate language that fails to offer a substantive
basis” for the conclusion is not a specific and
legitimate reason to reject the opinion of a treating
physician. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1013. The ALJ also
erred in concluding that Dr. Watson’s opinion was not
based on treatment records, since Dr. Watson’s
treatment records and test results are in the administrative
record. AR 368-92. Our circuit has held that when “the
opinions expressed in check-box form . . . were based on
significant experience with [the claimant] and supported by
numerous records, [they] were therefore entitled to weight
that an otherwise unsupported and unexplained checkbox would
not merit.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012-13. And
the ALJ’s unadorned conclusion that Dr. Watson’s
medical opinion was “not consistent with the evidence
as a whole, ” does not constitute “a detailed and
thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical
evidence.” Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957.
error was not harmless. Our circuit has explained that an
error is only harmless “when it was clear from the
record that an ALJ’s error was inconsequential to the
ultimate nondisability determination.” Robbins v.
Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006)
(internal quotation and citation omitted). As the ALJ’s
decision and Commissioner’s summary judgment motion
recognized, Coleman was eligible for disability benefits
whenever he became able only to perform light work. AR 21;
Dkt. No. 14 at 1. Dr. Watson’s medical opinion was that
as of February 2015, Coleman could only lift 20 pounds
occasionally. AR 435. Under the SSA’s regulations, this
would mean he was only capable of light work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.967(b). But the ALJ instead gave great weight to
the opinions of nonexamining physicians Dr. Rudito and Dr.
Ahmed, and consulting physician Dr. McMillan, who all opined
that Coleman could occasionally lift 50 pounds and,
accordingly, could perform medium work as defined in 20
C.F.R. § 416.967(c). AR 16, 17, 76, 91, 342. The Court
consequently cannot say that the ALJ’s error in
weighing Dr. Watson’s medical opinion was harmless.
Because this alone is sufficient for remand, the Court
declines to reach Coleman’s other arguments of error in
the ALJ’s decision.
asks that the Court direct the granting of benefits under the
credit-as-true rule. Dkt. No. 13 at 24-25; Dkt. No. 16 at 15.
But because the record as a whole does not compel a finding
of disability, and in fact raises “serious doubt”
as to whether Coleman was actually disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act prior to February 7, 2017,
the appropriate remedy here is remand. Garrison, 759
F.3d at 1021; see also Treichler v. Comm ’r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1107 (9th Cir. 2014).
Consequently, the Court remands the case to the SSA for
further proceedings to determine Coleman’s eligibility
for benefits in a manner consistent with this opinion.