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Linville v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

January 9, 2020




         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Title XVI supplemental security income.[1] In his summary judgment motion, Plaintiff primarily contends the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in weighing medical evidence and testimony regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments, and erred in formulating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. The Commissioner opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment.

         After considering the parties' written briefing, the record, and the applicable law, the Court recommends DENYING the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, GRANTING Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and REMANDING this case for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on October 29, 2013. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 20, 87.) Plaintiff claimed the following medical conditions: “Bilateral arm pain, abdominal pain, hepatitis C, depression, chronic insomnia, impaired cognition, a peculiar affect, and sustained remission . . . from alcoholism and illicit drugs.” (AT 307.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (AT 87, 106.) Plaintiff, aided by an attorney, sought review of these denials with an ALJ. (AT 123-5.) Plaintiff began working again in April 2016, thereby closing the period for which he could seek disability. (AT 87.) At an August 28, 2017 hearing, Plaintiff testified about his conditions, and the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding Plaintiff's ability to work. (AT 40-74.)

         On September 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled for the relevant period. (AT 20-31.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that while Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity starting in April 2016, he had not done so between then and October 2013--Plaintiff's application date. (AT 22.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff to have had the following severe impairments during the relevant period: Borderline Intellectual Functioning and Hepatitic C. (Id.) However, the ALJ determined at step three that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (AT 23) (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1).

         Based on this information, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, except that he could “perform simple, unskilled tasks[, with] no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and the public and where interaction with the public is not a primary component of the job.” (AT 25.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ stated that despite the temporal limitation of the claim (between October 2013 and April 2016), he “considered the complete medical history consistent with 20 C.F.R. 416.912(d).”[3] The ALJ stated this included considering Plaintiff's expressed symptoms, the objective medical evidence in the record, and the opinion evidence given by the examining and consulting physicians. (AT 25-29.) Relevant here, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable [mental] impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the above-alleged symptoms, ” the statements from Plaintiff and his family “concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” (AT 27.) Additionally, the ALJ rejected an examining psychiatrist's opinion--that Plaintiff was severely limited in being able to work safely and deal with routine changes-- because it was inconsistent with his return to work in April 2016. (AT 29.) Instead, the ALJ assigned “great weight” to the non-examining psychiatrist's opinion that Plaintiff can “interact in work-like settings and [can] complete a workday and workweek.” (AT 28.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded at steps four and five that while Plaintiff was incapable of performing past relevant work, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could still perform given the restrictions detailed in the RFC. (AT 29-31.)

         On June 26, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AT 6-11.) Plaintiff then timely filed this action requesting judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision, and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 1, 19, 24, 25.)


         The Court reviews the Commissioner's decision de novo, and should reverse “only if the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard.” Buck v. Berryhill, 869 F.3d 1040, 1048 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; i.e. “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Id. The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion where “the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Further, the court may not reverse the ALJ's decision on account of harmless error. Buck, 869 F.3d at 1048.


         Plaintiff alleges multiple errors on the ALJ's part, primarily arguing that the ALJ cherry- picked the record in crafting the RFC. (ECF No. 19 at p. 2.) This includes plaintiff's argument that the ALJ failed to give specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting portions of the examining physician's opinion, mischaracterized or ignored other medical opinions and evidence, and improperly rejected Plaintiff's subjective statements (and the statements of multiple third-parties) regarding his mental limitations. Plaintiff also argues the ALJ failed to fully develop the record, and the RFC does not reflect the evidence the ALJ purportedly relied upon, thereby affecting the Vocational Expert's analysis. Plaintiff maintains that once Dr. Kemp's opinions are credited as true, the Court must remand for benefits. Alternatively, Plaintiff indicates at times that a remand for further proceedings is appropriate.

         The Commissioner counters each of Plaintiff's arguments, contending that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's mental functions. (ECF No. 24.) Thus, the Commissioner maintains the ALJ's opinion should be affirmed.


         A. Evaluation of Medical Source Opinions

         The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally speaking, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's opinion, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a non-examining physician's opinion. Holohan, 246 F.3d at 1202. The medical opinion of a claimant's treating doctor 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 ...

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