United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. SCOTT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
G. (“Plaintiff”) applied for Social Security
disability benefits in January 2015 alleging disability
commencing on June 19, 2010, due to carpal tunnel syndrome
(“CTS”) and pain in both wrists, right wrist
surgery, a neck injury, and numbness in his left hand.
Administrative Record (“AR”) 269, 323. On October
3, 2017, 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 53-87. On December 15, 2017,
the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 33-46. The ALJ
found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of
“bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, neuropathy,
depression, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse.” AR 39.
The ALJ concluded that despite these impairments, Plaintiff
had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform less-than-light work (including lifting 20 pound
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently) with, as relevant to
this appeal, the following additional limitations on the use
of his hands: “He cannot perform constant or repetitive
forceful gripping or torqueing with his bilateral upper
extremities. He can occasionally perform fine finger
manipulation with his bilateral upper extremities.” AR
on this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a
landscape laborer, but he could work as a housekeeping
cleaner (Dictionary of Occupational Titles
[“DOT”] 323.687-014) and an automatic car wash
attendant (DOT 915.667-010). AR 45-46. The ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 46.
appeal presents the sole issue of whether the ALJ gave
specific and legitimate reasons for discounting the opinions
of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Rosa Cortes. (Dkt.
18, Joint Stipulation [“JS”] at 4.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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).
the opinions in the “Medical Source Statement” by
Dr. Cortes (AR 509-11) were contradicted by the opinions of
consultative examining physician Dr. Bernabe (see AR
463-67), meaning that the dispositive question is whether the
ALJ gave “specific, legitimate reasons” for
discounting Dr. Cortes's opinions.
SUMMARY OF RELEVANT EVIDENCE
was born in 1970. AR 457. In the last 15 years before the
hearing, he had not held a full-time job. AR 63. In 2008, he
worked as a cook and dishwasher at Frazee Community Center.
AR 408; see also AR 64, 520. At the time of the
October 2017 hearing, his most recent work involved
landscaping 3 days/week. AR 63. While his records showed
income in 2012 and 2013, he testified that he had not worked
even part-time since 2010. AR 63-64. He was, however,
frequently using marijuana and methamphetamine. AR 61-63. He
had a driver's license and still drove occasionally. AR
Medical Records from 2010-2013.
summer of 2010, Plaintiff underwent a nerve conduction study
which led to a diagnosis of bilateral CTS. AR 512. Plaintiff
testified that he had surgery on his right hand in 2010 for
CTS. AR 65. A January 2014 progress note from Dr. Cortes
recounting Plaintiffs medical history gives the date of this
surgery as March 28, 2011. AR 484. The AR contains no other
records about this surgery.
2010, Dr. Cortes completed a “Certificate of
Disability” indicating that Plaintiff was disabled from
July 7, 2010, through September 6, 2010, but she opined that
he could return to work on September 7, 2010. AR 446.
September 2010, Dr. Cortes completed another check-the-box
form indicating that Plaintiffs condition began in November
2009, that he had “a medically verifiable condition
that would limit or prevent him/her from performing certain
tasks, ” and that he was unable to work. AR 447.
Somewhat paradoxically, she also indicated that he did not
“have any limitations that affect his/her ability to
work or participate in education or training.”
Id She repeated this opinion in October 2010. AR
administrative record does not contain other medical records
for the years 2010-2013. As discussed below, some later
records mention past referrals for physical therapy (AR 484)
and occupational therapy (AR 518), but Plaintiff provided no
such therapy records.
Medical Records from 2014.
January 9, 2014, Plaintiff saw Dr. Cortes to “follow
up” on “hand pain.” AR 484. He reported
pain at level “5” in both of his
“hands.” Id Dr. Cortes noted that he had
gone to physical therapy after his 2011 surgery, but therapy