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Reynolds v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

December 6, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         For the reasons discussed below, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that, pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this matter is remanded for further administrative action consistent with this Opinion.


         On January 25, 2019, Plaintiff filed a Complaint seeking review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. (Docket Entry No. 1). The parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket Entry Nos. 14-15). On June 24, 2019, Defendant filed an Answer along with the Administrative Record (“AR”). (Docket Entry Nos. 18-19). On September 23, 2019, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”) setting forth their respective positions regarding Plaintiff's claims. (Docket Entry No. 20).

         The Court has taken this matter under submission without oral argument. See C.D. Cal. L.R. 7-15.


         On February 8, 2017, Plaintiff, formerly employed at attorneys' offices and an accounting office as a customer service administrator (see AR 55-61, 242, 250-53), filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging an inability to work because of a disabling condition since January 1, 2015. (See AR 196-99).

         On July 12, 2018, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Daniel Benjamin, heard testimony from Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and vocational expert June Hagen. (See AR 38-85). On July 27, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application. (See AR 18-29). Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2015. (AR 20). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments -- “degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy; and a history of right hand injury, trigger finger with surgical release in 2015 and 2017.” (AR 20-21).[2] At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (AR 23).

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to perform a reduced range of light work[4] with the following limitations: can balance, climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel crouch and crawl occasionally; cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or be exposed to unprotected heights or moving machinery parts; can reach with bilateral upper extremities frequently; can reach overhead with bilateral upper extremities occasionally; and can handle and finger with right dominant upper extremity frequently. (AR 23-28).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a secretary as generally performed (AR 28), and therefore found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 29).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 30, 2018. (See AR 1-5). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if it is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. See Brewes v. Comm'r, 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, “a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001)(internal quotation omitted). As a result, “[i]f the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [a court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).[5]


         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in failing to properly: (1) reject the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician and other medical providers, rely on the opinions of the State Agency Medical physician, and consider the impact of Plaintiff's impairments (mitral and pulmonic valve disease, thyroid disease, hyperlipidemia, history of leg surgery, history of low blood pressure, sleep apnea) on the RFC; (2) assess Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; (3) assess third party testimony; and (4) determine Plaintiff's ability to perform past relevant work or full-time work. (See Joint Stip. at 3-12, 18-25, 28-35).


         After consideration of the record as a whole, the Court finds that Plaintiff's first claim of error with respect to the ALJ's rejection of the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician warrants a remand for further consideration. Since the Court is remanding the matter based on Plaintiff's first claim of error, the Court will not address Plaintiff's other claims of error.

         A. The ALJ Improperly Rejected the Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician, Gary Pang, M.D.

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly reject the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Pang, and of Plaintiff's “other medical providers.” (See Joint Stip. at 4-5, 7-10, 12, 19).[6]Defendant asserts that the ALJ properly assessed the opinion of Dr. Pang. (See Joint Stip. at 16-17).

         An ALJ must take into account all medical opinions of record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). “Generally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician's.” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1202 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). The medical opinion of a treating physician is given “controlling weight” so long as it “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). “When a treating doctor's opinion is not controlling, it is weighted according to factors such as the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability, and consistency of the record.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6).

         If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, the ALJ can reject the opinion only for “clear and convincing reasons.” Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir 2008); Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. If the treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the ALJ must provide “specific and legitimate reasons” for rejecting the opinion. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 632 (9th Cir. 2007); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998); Lester, supra. “The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017)(citation omitted). Finally, an ALJ may reject an opinion of any physician that is conclusory, brief, and unsupported by clinical findings. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2015); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001).

         Gary Pang, M.D., at University Pain Consultants, treated Plaintiff from November 27, 2017 to June 4, 2018, which included physical examinations on six occasions (November 27, 2017, December 27, 2017, April 9, 2018, ...

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