United States District Court, N.D. California
KIMBERLY B. WALTON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL,  Defendant.
ORDER RE SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 15,
Donato United States District Judge.
Walton challenges a decision of a Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) that denied her application for
supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title
XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties filed
cross-motions for summary judgment. Dkt. Nos. 15, 20. Walton
also filed a reply brief in opposition to defendant's
cross-motion and in support of her motion for summary
judgment. Dkt. No. 21. Walton'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 January 4, 2017, the ALJ found that Walton
suffers from a number of severe physical and mental
impairments, including depression, posttraumatic stress
disorder, hypertension, obesity and degenerative disc
disease. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 27.
Uncontroverted evidence in the record also indicates that
Walton suffers from sciatic nerve damage that causes her
great pain in her left leg. The ALJ determined that Walton
has not been disabled since she applied for benefits on
November 3, 2014. The ALJ found that Walton has the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a subset
of “medium work” with the following limitations:
“occasional postural activities but no climbing
ladders, ropes or scaffolds and frequent stooping, ”
and only “simple routine work with no more than
occasional contact with coworkers and the public.” AR
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). The
ALJ's decision in this case 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. H. Samplay, Dr.
K. Rudito, Dr. Dara Goosby and Dr. S. Regan, the state agency
review physicians and psychologists, than that of Dr. Karen
Mu, who provided Walton with outpatient psychiatric services
since June 2015, around the time of her hospitalization at
San Francisco General Hospital. AR 630-31. 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 in turn
more weight is given to the opinion of an examining physician
than to that of a nonexamining physician. Id. Even
where, as here, a treating or examining physician's
opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the Commissioner
may not reject the treating or examining physician's
opinion 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) (citation omitted).
case, the ALJ did not even state what weight she was giving
to Dr. Mu's medical opinion, only noting it was not
entitled to “controlling weight.” AR 34. Dr. Mu
was Walton's treating physician and her medical opinion,
as articulated in a letter co-authored with Stefanie Breedy,
LCSW, was that “Walton's conditions markedly limit
her ability to carry out her activities of daily
living” and that “Walton would unlikely be able
to handle the stressors and responsibilities in a work
setting.” AR 630. They concluded “Walton would be
unable to manage the daily routines, responsibilities, and
social interactions required in a work setting for the next
12 months despite treatment and support, and she has had
these limitations since before she entered into our care in
June 2015.” AR 631. The ALJ's rejection of Dr.
Mu's opinion that Walton would be unable to manage a work
environment was remarkably terse.
the ALJ found that Dr. Mu's “finding is not well
supported” because progress notes “document
medications have helped control claimant's
symptoms.” AR 34. But her medical opinion is certainly
consistent with the last progress note which reports
Walton's suicidal ideation and trouble performing daily
activities. AR 628. The ALJ's analysis does not
constitute the “detailed and thorough summary of the
facts and conflicting clinical evidence” required to
reject a treating physician's medical opinion.
Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957. Moreover, our circuit has
held that “[c]ycles of improvement and debilitating
symptoms are a common occurrence, and in such circumstances
it is error for an ALJ to pick out a few isolated instances
of improvement over a period of months or years and to treat
them as a basis for concluding a claimant is capable of
working.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1017; see
also Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1205 (9th Cir.
2001) (“[The treating physicians's] statements must
be read in context of the overall diagnostic picture he
draws. That a person who suffers from severe panic attacks,
anxiety, and depression makes some improvement does not mean
that the person's impairments no longer seriously affect
her ability to function in a workplace.”).
the ALJ found that Dr. Mu's opinion was inconsistent with
Walton's “activities of daily living as she is able
to care for herself, watch television, shop, handle finances,
go outside, go out alone, cook and clean.” AR 34.
However, there is evidence in the record that Walton's
depression was so severe that she sometimes was not able to
leave her bed. AR 628. Additionally, our circuit has held,
“The Social Security Act does not require that
claimants be utterly incapacitated to be eligible for
benefits, and many home activities are not easily
transferable to what may be the more grueling environment of
the workplace, where it might be impossible to periodically
rest or take medication.” Fair v. Bowen, 885
F.2d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 1989).
the ALJ completely rejected parts of Dr. Mu and Ms.
Breedy's opinion without a legitimate reason. The ALJ
claimed “the determination that the claimant is
disabled is an issue reserved to the Commissioner . . . and
even treating such opinions [sic] on such issues are
never entitled to controlling weight or special significant
[sic].” AR 34. Our circuit has held that
physicians “may render opinions on the ultimate issue
of disability -- the claimant's ability to perform
work.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725
(9th Cir. 1998). “Where an ALJ does not explicitly
reject a medical opinion or set forth specific, legitimate
reasons for crediting one medical opinion over another, he
errs.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1012 (citation
are also reasons to believe that the decision below was not
based on substantial evidence. For example, the ALJ appears
to credit Walton's report that “she has never been
psychiatrically hospitalized, ” AR 28, when the
administrative record clearly states that she was
hospitalized in September 2015 for suicidal ideation and was
“released to supportive housing and increased case
management, ” AR 588. Similarly, the ALJ noted that
“the minimal treatment records reveal the claimant
received routine, conservative, and non-emergency treatment
since the application date, ” but the next paragraph of
the decision notes her hospitalization at San Francisco
General Hospital for psychiatric emergency services in 2015.
errors were 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). On this record,
where the ALJ did not even state what weight she was giving
the treating physician's medical opinion, the Court
cannot say the error was inconsequential. Because this alone
is sufficient for remand, the Court declines to reach
Walton's other arguments of error in the ALJ's
asks that the Court direct the granting of benefits under the
credit-as-true rule. Dkt. No. 15 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
Walton was actually disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act throughout the entire claimed period, 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 Walton's eligibility for
benefits in a manner consistent with this opinion.