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Kaplowitz v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 21, 2019




         Plaintiff appeals from the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). For the reasons discussed below, the Court remands the case for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI in 2014, alleging disability beginning November 27, 2013. See Dkt. 28 (Administrative Record (“AR”)) 466-468. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing and issued an unfavorable decision on January 19, 2017. AR 13-33. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: psoriatic arthritis, sacroiliitis, and obesity. AR 18. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. AR 20. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) limited him to light work with additional limitations. Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because he was capable of performing past relevant work as a graphic designer, as well as other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 26.

         After the Appeals Council denied review, Plaintiff sought review in this Court. Dkt. 1 (Complaint). In accordance with Civil Local Rule 16-5, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment (Dkt. 31, 32), which are now ready for decision without oral argument.


         1. Did the ALJ err in assigning more weight to the opinions of the non- examining state consultants, the examining state consultants, and the medical expert than that of Plaintiff's two treating rheumatologists (Drs. Wahl and Margaretten) and his primary care physician (Dr. Kimberg)?


         This Court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits, but “a federal court's review of Social Security determinations is quite limited.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Federal courts “leave it to the ALJ to determine credibility, resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities in the record.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on the application of improper legal standards. Id. at 492. “Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains sufficient evidence to support the agency's factual determinations, ” and this threshold is “not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, -- U.S. --, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (internal quotation marks, citation, and alteration omitted); see also Rounds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (“Substantial evidence” means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court “must consider the evidence as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Rounds, 807 F.3d at 1002 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold the ALJ's findings if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Id.

         Even if the ALJ commits legal error, the ALJ's decision will be upheld if the error is harmless. Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492. But “[a] reviewing court may not make independent findings based on the evidence before the ALJ to conclude that the ALJ's error was harmless.” Id. The Court is “constrained to review the reasons the ALJ asserts.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).


         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence. In social security disability cases, “[t]he ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008). Generally, the opinion of a treating physician is entitled to more weight than the opinion of an examining physician, and more weight is given to the opinion of an examining physician than a non-examining physician. Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2014). Where a treating physician's opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the record, it must be given controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of treating physicians. Ghanim, 763 F.3d at 1160; see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002) (holding that ALJ can reject uncontradicted treating physician's opinion “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting medical evidence, stating his own interpretation thereof, and making findings”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where contradicted, the opinion of treating physicians may be rejected only for “specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Ghanim, 763 F.3d at 1160.

         The ALJ cited two reasons for giving the opinions of Plaintiff's three treating physicians, Drs. Wahl, Margaretten, and Kimberg, “little weight”: (1) the treating physicians' opinions “provide drastically different limitations despite being formulated in relative proximity to each other when the claimant's condition would not have notably changed”; ...

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