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Catherine S. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 8, 2019

BROOKE CATHERINE S., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN E. SCOTT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Brooke Catherine S. (“Plaintiff”) applied for Titles II and XVI disability benefits in October 2015 alleging disability on August 16, 2015, due to various mental disorders. Administrative Record (“AR”) 207-19, 248-58. On February 8, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). AR 33-75. On March 28, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 12-32. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “cervical spine sprain/strain; lumbar spine/strain; major depressive disorder; panic disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; obsessive compulsive disorder; and borderline personality disorder.” AR 18. The ALJ concluded that despite these impairments, Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with the following non-exertional limitations: “is limited to work involving simple repetitive tasks; and is limited to work involving no more than occasional contact with co-workers and the public.” AR 21.

         Based on this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a retail clerk or bank teller, but she could perform the jobs of packer (Dictionary of Occupational Titles [“DOT”] 920.587-018) and kitchen helper (DOT 318.687-010). AR 26. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 27.

         II. ISSUE PRESENTED

         This appeal presents the sole issue of whether the ALJ gave specific and legitimate reasons for discounting the opinions of examining psychologist Dr. Helayna Taylor. (Dkt. 18, Joint Stipulation [“JS”] at 4.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the district court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

         In deciding how to resolve conflicts between medical opinions, the ALJ must consider that there are three types of physicians who may offer opinions in Social Security cases: (1) those who directly treated the plaintiff, (2) those who examined but did not treat the plaintiff, and (3) those who did not treat or examine the plaintiff. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than that of an examining physician, which is generally entitled to more weight than that of a non-examining physician. Id. If the treating physician's opinion is uncontroverted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for “clear and convincing” reasons. Id. The ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a treating physician's opinion in favor of a non-treating physician's contradictory opinion or an examining physician's opinion in favor of a non-examining physician's opinion. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Here, the opinion of Dr. H. Taylor was contradicted by the opinions of the state agency doctors (see AR 76-101), meaning that the dispositive question is whether the ALJ gave “specific, legitimate reasons” for discounting Dr. Taylor's opinions.

         IV. SUMMARY OF RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE

         The administrative record generally contains the following evidence of Plaintiffs mental illness and the functional limitations it causes:

(1) Records from treating psychiatrist Dr. Weiming David Chu (AR 353-89, 397-430, 440-75, 696-742);
(2) Questionnaire completed by treating psychiatrist Terrance Taylor (AR 390-94);
(3) Handwritten notes from therapist Gail Benge (AR 647-95);
(4) December 2016 records from Hoag Hospital (AR 621-46);
(5) 2015 function reports by Plaintiff (AR 282-90) and her adoptive mother (AR 291-98);
(6) Psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Helayna Taylor (AR 486-93);
(7) 2010-2012 treatment records from Orange County Behavioral Health Services (AR 497-620); and
(8) Opinions by non-examining state agency consultants Drs. Tawnya Brode (AR 95-99) and Dan Funkenstein (AR 109-16).

         A. Dr. Chu's Records.

         The following summary of Dr. Chu's records is presented in chronological order:

         • 6/24/14: This was Plaintiffs first appointment with Dr. Chu. AR 384. A mental status examination (“MSE”) revealed a “depressed” but “cooperative” mood with “fair” insight and judgment and no suicidal ideations. AR 385. Plaintiffs symptoms included “dysfunction in career, social interactions, family interactions, romantic relationships.” Id Plaintiff was already taking Effexor (the brand name for venlafaxine hydrochloride) and started Adderall. AR 386.

         • 7/15/14: Plaintiff reported nausea since starting Adderall. She also reported that Adderall was helping her focus, and she needed to focus and do well at her new bank job. Her mood was “sad, hopeless.” AR 382.

         • 7/17/14: Plaintiff continued to report nausea. She presented with a “depressed, sad” mood. AR 380.

         • 9/3/14: Plaintiff reported “moderate improvement” of her symptoms, but she stopped taking Effexor to address her nausea. AR 378.

         • 10/6/14: Plaintiff presented for medication management with a “happy mood, ” “good” judgment, and “stable” symptoms. AR 376. Dr. Chu noted that she was on Adderall, Effexor, and Acyclovir (an anti-viral drug unrelated to Plaintiff's mental illness). AR 377.

         • 12/29/14: The MSE notes tearfulness, poor insight, and impaired impulse control. AR 374. Plaintiff was “unable to concentrate and follow through w/ tasks.” Id. She was “not doing well” and “very depressed, ” so Dr. Chu increased Effexor and changed her Adderall dosage. AR 375.

         • 1/26/15: The MSE again notes tearfulness, poor insight, and impaired impulse control. AR 372. Plaintiff was “not doing well” and “very anxious, ” so Dr. Chu started Propranolol. AR 373.

         • 3/4/15: The MSE was unremarkable but for “fair to poor” insight and judgment. AR 370. Plaintiff reported a “slight improvement in mood” after increasing Effexor and changing her Adderall dosage. Id.

         • 4/7/15: The MSE was back to noting tearfulness, poor insight, and impaired impulse control. AR 368. Plaintiff was “not doing well, ” so Dr. Chu started Lamictal. AR 369.

         • 7/7/15: The MSE again notes tearfulness, poor insight, and impaired impulse control. AR 366. She was still “not doing well, ” so Dr. Chu increased Lamictal. AR 367.

         • 8/25/15: Same MSE. AR 364. Plaintiff was “not doing well, ” so Dr. Chu increased Pristiq. AR 365.

         • 9/29/15: The MSE again notes tearfulness, poor insight, and impaired impulse control. AR 362. She was still “not doing ...


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