United States District Court, C.D. California
GENIE M. B., an Individual, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE AUTUMN D. SPAETH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Genie M. B. (“Plaintiff”) challenges the
Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's (hereinafter
“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denial
of her applications for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental
security income (“SSI”). Plaintiff contends that
the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) improperly
evaluated the medical opinion evidence, as well as her
subjective statements. For the reasons stated below, the
decision of the Commissioner is affirmed, and this matter is
dismissed with prejudice.
FACTS RELEVANT TO THE APPEAL
review of the entire record reflects certain uncontested
facts relevant to this appeal. Prior to filing her
application for social security benefits, Plaintiff last
worked on June 19, 2013, her alleged disability onset date.
(Administrative Record “AR” 222, 224, 241, 245).
Plaintiff's application alleges disability based on
“discs and scoliosis.” (AR 115, 245). Her
employment history indicates that she worked as a manager in
advertising from 2002 until her cessation of work in 2012.
(AR 233-39, 246, 254). Before that, from 1998 to 2002, she
was a recorder in the home-lending industry. (Id.)
Plaintiff testified that she stopped working because she
couldn't take the constant pain in her lower back from
sitting behind a computer. (AR 122-23, 125, 128). This
unbearable pain affected her ability to concentrate. (AR 123,
128). She took pain medication, which helped “a little
bit.” (AR 123). She also had injections but they
didn't help as much. (AR 123). Her treating physician,
Dr. Hrair Darakjian, suggested neck surgery, but she declined
it because she was “too afraid.” (AR 123-24,
868). She was not recommended for back surgery. (AR 123-24).
She can take the neck pain, but not the back pain from
sitting. (AR 124, 128). She also experiences numbness in her
upper extremities and left side, headaches, and chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) from
smoking. (AR 125, 128-31).
August 14, 2014, Dr. Darakjian evaluated Plaintiff for her
complaints of difficulty sitting, standing, and walking more
than 30 minutes at a time. (AR 644). The cervical examination
revealed 80% range of motion “with pain at extremes of
motion, ” but no focal neurological deficit.
(Id.). The lumbar examination revealed normal
heel-toe gait, spasm and tenderness in the paraspinal
muscles, 75% range of motion “with pain at the extremes
of motion, ” but no focal neurological deficit.
(Id.) Dr. Darakjian diagnosed Plaintiff with
cervical and lumbar spondylosis with disc disease. (AR 645).
He concluded the evaluation by stating “[d]isability is
extended, ” refilling her medication, and indicating
Plaintiff should return for a follow-up appointment in six
October 17, 2014, Dr. Darakjian completed a three-page,
check-box “MEDICAL OPINION RE: ABILITY TO DO PHYSICAL
ACTIVITIES” questionnaire. (AR 647-49). Dr. Darakjian
stated that he had treated Plaintiff for cervical and lumbar
disc disease monthly, but he did not specify for what period
of time. (AR 647). He repeated his diagnosis of cervical and
lumbar disc disease, and he stated that prognosis was
“guarded.” (Id.) The doctor opined that
Plaintiff (1) could walk “0” city blocks without
rest; (2) could sit for 30 minutes and stand for 20 minutes
at one time, and for less than 2 hours total in an eight-hour
working day; (3) would need a job that permitted shifting
positions at will; (4) could lift and carry no more than 10
pounds and had a limited ability to reach, handle, and finger
bilaterally; (5) could never climb ladders, but could
occasionally twist, stoop, crouch, and climb stairs; and (6)
would require six unscheduled breaks, each for 20 minutes,
every workday. (AR 647-49). As a result of these limitations,
Dr. Darakjian anticipated Plaintiff would likely miss work
more than twice a month. (AR 649).
7, 2016, Dr. Lawrence Leiter completed a “MEDICAL
OPINION QUESTIONNAIRE PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES.” (AR
738-40). He diagnosed Plaintiff with “COPD” and
“[s]pondylosis [with d]isc disease, ” and stated
her prognosis was “poor for recovery, ” but
“good for life.” (AR 738). He opined that
Plaintiff (1) could sit for 30 minutes and stand for 10
minutes at one time; (2) could sit for less than two hours
and stand/walk for less than two hours total in an eight-hour
workday; (3) would not need to shift positions at will, but
would need to elevate her legs; (4) could never lift any
weight and had a limited ability to reach, handle, and finger
bilaterally; (5) could never twist or climb ladders, but
could occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb stairs; (6) would
require 30 minute unscheduled breaks every half hour during
the workday; and (7) should avoid all environmental exposures
except perfume. (AR 747-40). As a result of these
limitations, the doctor anticipated that Plaintiff would be
absent from work more than twice a month. (AR 740). At the
end of the questionnaire, Dr. Leiter handwrote that
“[t]his information is all according to
protectively filed her application for DIB on March 14, 2014,
alleging disability beginning June 19, 2013 (AR 20, 115,
222-32). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on June
13, 2014 (AR 144, 155-58), and upon reconsideration on
September 4, 2014 (AR 154, 162-66). Plaintiff filed an
application for SSI on June 6, 2015, also alleging disability
beginning June 19, 2013, and it was escalated. (AR 20, 115,
222-32). A hearing was held before ALJ Sally C. Reason on
August 31, 2016. (AR 113-36). Plaintiff, represented by
counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing, as
did a vocational expert, Gail Maron. (Id.)
November 25, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was
“not disabled” within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. (AR 20-39). The ALJ's decision became
the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals
Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January
19, 2018. (AR 1-7). Plaintiff then filed this action in
District Court on March 13, 2018, challenging the ALJ's
decision. [Dkt. No. 1].
Summary of ALJ Decision After Hearing
decision (AR 20-39), the ALJ followed the required five-step
sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff was
disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful
activity since June 19, 2013, the alleged onset date. (AR
22). At step two, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (a)
degenerative disc disease, with myofascial pain; and (b)
step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
“does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526,
416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” (AR 31). The ALJ
then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional
Capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except posturals
are limited to occasionally.” (AR 32).
step four, based on Plaintiff's RFC and
the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an
advertising manager or as a mortgage loan computation clerk.
(AR 38). The ALJ noted, “[n]either of these jobs
requires the performance of work-related activities precluded
by the claimant's [RFC] . . .” (Id.). The
ALJ did not proceed to step five. (AR 39).
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been
under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act,
from June 19, 2013, through the date of the decision,
November 25, 2016. (AR 39).
Issues on Appeal
raises two issues for review: (1) whether the ALJ properly
analyzed the medical opinion evidence; and (2) whether the
ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective statements.
[Dkt. No. 19 (Joint Stipulation), 12]. Specifically,
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to provide legally
sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinions of her treating
physicians. In addition, Plaintiff contends the ALJ
improperly discounted her statements regarding the nature and
severity of her conditions.
Standard of Review
United States District Court may review the
Commissioner's decision to deny benefits pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). The District Court is not a trier of
the facts but is confined to ascertaining by the record
before it if the Commissioner's decision is based upon
substantial evidence. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d
995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014) (District Court's review is
limited to only grounds relied upon by ALJ) (citing
Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir.
2003)). A court must affirm an ALJ's findings of fact if
they are supported by substantial evidence and if the proper
legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari,
276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). An ALJ can satisfy the
substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a
detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting
clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and
making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d
715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).
Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed simply by
isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather,
a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both
evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the
Secretary's conclusion.” Aukland v.
Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001)
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
“‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation,' the ALJ's decision should
be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v.
Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see
Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir.
2006) (“If the evidence can support either affirming or
reversing the ALJ's conclusion, we may not substitute our
judgment for that of the ALJ.”). However, the Court may
review only “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the
disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a
ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v.
Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation
even if an ALJ errs, the decision will be affirmed where such
error is harmless, that is, if it is “inconsequential
to the ultimate nondisability determination, ” or if
“the agency's path may reasonably be discerned,
even if the agency explains its decision with less than ideal
clarity.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d