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Genie M. B. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

October 15, 2019

GENIE M. B., an Individual, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Genie M. B.[2] (“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.[3]


         A 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).

         On 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 weeks. (Id.)

         On 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).

         On July 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 Patient[.]” (Id.).


         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff 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[4], appeared and testified at the hearing, as did a vocational expert, Gail Maron. (Id.)

         On November 25, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was “not disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act.[5] (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].

         B. Summary of ALJ Decision After Hearing

         In the 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.[6] 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) COPD. (Id.).

         At 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”)[7] “to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)[8] except posturals are limited to occasionally.” (AR 32).

         At 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Issues on Appeal

         Plaintiff 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.

         B. Standard of Review

         A 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).

         “[T]he 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 omitted).

         Lastly, 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 ...

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