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Stroski v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 26, 2019




         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.[1] In his summary judgment motion, Plaintiff contends the Administrative Law Judge erred in failing to articulate (A) specific and legitimate reasons for discrediting “persuasive opinion evidence” regarding Plaintiff’s mental limitations; and (B) clear and convincing reasons for discrediting Plaintiff’s own statements of these limitations. 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.


         Plaintiff was 50 years old when in early 2012 he stopped working various labor jobs. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 24, 48–51.) On November 18, 2013, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), contending he was disabled due to his anxiety, depression, and a general inability to work on a schedule or maintain regular attendance. (AT 84.) Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (AT 79–118.) Plaintiff, aided by an attorney, sought review of those denials with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AT 133.) At an August 9, 2016 hearing, Plaintiff testified about his condition, and the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) regarding Plaintiff’s ability to perform various occupations. (AT 43–77.)

         On September 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled from his onset date through his date last insured. (AT 26.) As an initial matter, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act for purposes of DIB for the relevant period. (AT 26.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following impairments: paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, hypothyroidism, symptoms consistent with fibromyalgia, depression and anxiety. (AT 26.) 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 26–27) (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1). Based on this information, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, within certain parameters. (AT 29.) Specifically regarding Plaintiff’s mental impairments (relevant to these cross–motions), the RFC limited him as follows:

He is able to perform simple, repetitive, one to two step job instructions. He is able to perform technical, complex job instructions but with supervision. He is able to maintain attention, concentration as it pertains to the simple, one to two– step job instructions and to the technical job instructions with supervision. He should avoid dealing with a lot of changes in the routine work setting. He is limited to occasional interaction with the public and coworkers, but on a frequent basis with supervisors. He should avoid an environment that is very noisy.

(Id.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered those of Plaintiff’s intense, persistent, and limiting symptoms that were consistent with the medical evidence and opinions of Plaintiff’s physicians. (Id.) This evidence included the reports and opinions of treating physicians Dr. Kline and Dr. Nguyen, as well as the opinions and records from multiple examining and non–examining physicians. (AT 29–35.) In so synthesizing the RFC, the ALJ (1) discounted Dr. Kline’s assessment that Plaintiff’s ability to maintain a schedule and work attendance was “poor”; (2) appeared to discount Dr. Nyugen’s assessment that Plaintiff’s “anxiety would impair [his] concentration”; (3) discounted one of Plaintiff’s Wechsler Memory Scale–IV tests, scoring Plaintiff memory as “extremely low, ” as conducted by an examining physician (Dr. Bowerman); and (4) discounted certain RFC findings from two agency–consultative physicians (Drs. Barron and Covey). (Id.) The ALJ also discounted Plaintiff’s testimony as to his symptoms. (Id.) The ALJ concluded at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past work, but had acquired skills from past jobs that allowed him to perform many other occupations in the national economy (at step five). (AT 35–36.) Thus, the Commissioner determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)

         On January 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (AT 1–6.) Plaintiff then timely filed this action requesting judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision; the parties filed cross–motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 1, 16, 22.)


         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. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to articulate (A) specific and legitimate reasons for discrediting “persuasive opinion evidence” regarding Plaintiff’s functional limitations––as multiple physicians at all levels identified more–severe mental impairments ignored by the ALJ upon synthesis of Plaintiff’s RFC; and (B) clear and convincing reasons for discrediting Plaintiff’s own statements––as his testimony supported the fact that his mental impairments are more severe than the ALJ credited. (ECF No. 16–1 at p. 17–32.) Plaintiff seeks a remand for benefits or for further proceedings. (Id. at p. 32.)

         The Commissioner disagrees, arguing that in light of the medical evidence and opinions of other examining psychologists, the ALJ sufficiently detailed why he (properly) did not include the more severe restrictions in the RFC, as well as why he (properly) found Plaintiff able to work under the identified mental work restrictions. (ECF No. 22.) 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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