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Tovar v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 26, 2019

JENNIFER LEE TOVAR Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PARTIES’ CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF NOS. 15, 26)

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. In her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge presiding over her hearing erred by failing to: (A) make a specific finding of fact regarding Plaintiff’s urinary frequency and also failing to provide sufficient reasons for discrediting her treating urologist; and (B) failing to credit the opinion of her treating psychiatrist regarding certain mental impairments. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing that the ALJ adequately addressed Plaintiff’s urination issue in determining her RFC, and he properly discounted the two treating physicians’ opinions.

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

         I. BACKGROUND AND ALJ’S FIVE–STEP ANALYSIS [1]

         Plaintiff was born on September 3, 1977. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 34.) She has worked as an insurance benefits coordinator for Blue Shield and as a senior teller for a bank. (AT 323–24.) On February 18, 2014, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), alleging that since January 25, 2014, she had been unable to work due to the following disabilities: interstitial cystitis (“IC”), irritable bowel syndrome, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (AT 21, 23, 375.) Plaintiff’s application was denied on April 14, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on June 10, 2014. (AT 21.)

         Aided by an attorney, Plaintiff sought review of these denials before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AT 21.) At a July 14, 2016 hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Dr. Peter Garbeff, Plaintiff’s treating urologist. (AT 344–45.) At a November 22, 2016 hearing, Plaintiff testified as to her conditions; Dr. Arnold Ostrow testified as to his review of Plaintiff’s medical records; and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified as to Plaintiff’s ability to perform certain work. (AT 21, 31.)

         On December 20, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period. (AT 35.) 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 23.) At step one, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 25, 2014, Plaintiff’s alleged disability onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: IC, IBS, affective disorder, bipolar, anxiety, asthma, PTSD, and obesity. (AT 23.) 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. (AT 24–25, citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.) The ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work within the following parameters:

[S]tand and/or walk for 6 hours of an 8 hour work day, sit for up to 6 hours of an 8 hours [sic] work day, with normal breaks; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps or stairs; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl; should avoid concentrated exposure to poorly ventilated areas; should avoid all concentrated exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, and gases (due to asthma); should avoid concentrated exposure to poorly ventilated areas; should avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery; should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights; work is limited to simple . . . routine and repetitive tasks; work should only involve low stress jobs with only occasional changes in the work setting and with only occasional interaction with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors; should have ready access to restroom within 100 yards or 2 minutes.

(AT 25–26.) Regarding Plaintiff’s IC, the ALJ reached this conclusion by examining evidence in the record suggesting that stress exacerbated Plaintiff’s incontinence, but that it otherwise was too inconsistent to quantify the frequency of her need to urinate. (AT 27, 36, 722.) Additionally, the ALJ assigned great weight to the opinion of Dr. Ostrow, a consultative physician, and only reduced weight to the opinion of Dr. Garbeff, her treating physician. (AT 31–32.) Regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments, the ALJ accorded great weight to the opinion of Dr. Bradley Daigle, a consultative examining psychiatrist, and assigned reduced weight to a medical source statement (“MSS”) provided by Dr. John Yarbrough, Plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist. (AT 30-31, 33.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but could perform other jobs as existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (AT 33–34.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled for the relevant period. (AT 48.)

         On November 20, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (AT 1–7.) Plaintiff timely filed this action requesting judicial review of the final decision; the parties filed cross–motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff filed a reply. (ECF Nos. 1, 15, 26, 27.)

         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). Further, the court may not reverse the ALJ’s decision on account of harmless error. Buck, 869 F.3d at 1048.

         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) contradictory opinions are in the record; and (2) clinical findings support the opinions. A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected for “specific and legitimate” reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830–31. An ALJ provides specific and legitimate reasons by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating [an] interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted); see also Morgan, 169 F.3d at 601–02.

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ’s decision, as detailed above, is not supported by substantial evidence. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly applied Social Security Ruling 15-1p (“SSR 15-1p, ” which outlines the proper process for analyzing an IC claim) by failing to make a specific factual finding regarding Plaintiff’s urinary frequency. Further, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erroneously discounted: (A) the opinions of Dr. Garbeff, a board-certified urologist who diagnosed Plaintiff with IC and has treated her for the condition since 2010; and (B) the opinion of Dr. Yarbrough, a psychiatrist who treated Plaintiff from 2013 through 2014 for, among other things, bipolar, anxiety, and PTSD. (AT 768.) Plaintiff requests that the Court remand, directing the ALJ to make such a finding, so a VE can then consider Plaintiff’s urinary frequency when expounding on the number of jobs available to her. (ECF No. 15 at 16.)

         The Commissioner opposed, arguing the ALJ adequately addressed Plaintiff’s need to urinate in formulating her RFC. The Commissioner also contends that the ALJ properly detailed his rejection of the two treating physicians’ ...


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