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Riggs v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 2, 2015

SHANNON M. RIGGS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


THOMAS M. COFFIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (Act) to obtain judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under the Act. The Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this case is dismissed.


Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and remanded for the payment of benefits. Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred by failing to give: 1) adequate consideration to the opinion of her treating doctor; 2) clear and convincing reasons for rejecting her testimony; and 3) sufficient weight to lay evidence. Pl.'s Br. 12. Plaintiff also argues that the Commissioner did not meet her burden of proving that she retains the ability to perform "other work" in the national economy. Id.

The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). In reviewing plaintiff's alleged errors, this court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

I. Weight Given to the Opinion of Plaintiff's Doctor

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give specific and legitimate reasons for choosing the opinions of the consultative examiner and the non-examining psychologists over the opinion of her treating doctor, Dr. Hallenburg. Pl.'s Br. 16.

The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Hallenburg's opinion because it was a "one-time snapshot" of plaintiff's functioning that relied on plaintiff's self-reporting, which he found "less than credible." Tr. 19. Specifically, the ALJ noted that plaintiff told Dr. Hallenburg that she had been clean and sober since April 2009, despite admitting to using drugs and alcohol as recently as 2012 during the hearing. The ALJ also noted that plaintiff complained to Dr. Hallenburg about hearing voices, but denied such symptom testimony to other medical sources. Id.

There are three types of medical opinions in social security cases: those from treating, examining, and non-examining doctors. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is entitled to "special weight" because she "is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual." Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted). The ALJ may reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining physician by providing clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995) However, If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence. Barnhart, 427 F.3d at 1216 (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31). Although the contrary opinion of a non-treating medical expert does not alone constitute a specific, legitimate reason for rejecting a treating or examining physician's opinion, it may constitute substantial evidence when it is consistent with other independent evidence in the record. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 752 (9th Cir. 1989).

Additionally, "[a]n opinion of disability premised to a large extent upon the claimant's own accounts of [her] symptoms and limitations may be disregarded, once those complaints have themselves been properly discounted." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d at 1043; see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2001) (claimant's provision of misinformation, unbeknownst to a doctor, served as a legally sufficient reason for rejecting that doctor's opinion). Further, while an ALJ cannot reject the severity of subjective complaints solely on the lack of objective evidence, the ALJ may nonetheless look to the medical record for inconsistencies. See Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599-600 (9th Cir. 1999) Finally, an ALJ need not accept a medical opinion that fails to take into account a claimant's drug or alcohol use. See Morgan, 169 F.3d at 602-03.

At the outset, this court notes that contrary to plaintiff's assertions, the evidence reveals that Dr. Hallenburg, Ph.D., was a consultative examiner and not plaintiff's treating doctor. Tr. 76, opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Dieter, M.D., and reviewing Drs. Kennemer, Psy.D., and Rethinger, Ph.D.. Tr. 84-85, 102-03, 268. Thus, the specific and legitimate standard applies here.

Dr. Hallenburg completed a consultative psychological examination of plaintiff in August 2012 that included the review of one psychological evaluation of plaintiff from 2009, intellectual functioning tests, and plaintiff's self-reported symptoms, which included claims that she has "been clean and sober since April 17, 2009" and that she began "hearing voices" and "seeing things that are not there" when she was eight. Tr. 14, 276-81. Dr. Hallenburg diagnosed plaintiff with PTSD, OCD, polysubstance abuse in sustained full remission, and psychosis and bipolar disorders. Tr. 281. Dr. Hellenburg concluded that despite being on medications and being clean and sober for four years, plaintiff's health symptoms had increased and significantly interfere with her ability to focus, organize, and interact personally with others on the job, rendering her unable to maintain employment at this time. Id.

In contrast to the statements plaintiff made to Dr. Hallenburg, she admitted to relapsing "about a year ago" at the administrative hearing. Tr. 45. The record also reveals that after being admitted to the hospital on March 31, .2011, plaintiff tested positive for THC in a urine drug test, told doctors that she used alcohol and marijuana "a couple weeks ago, " and denied experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. Tr. 362-63.

In addition to the contradicting statements plaintiff made to doctors and the ALJ regarding drug use and hallucinations, three doctors gave opinions that contradicted Dr. Hellenburg's assessment of plaintiff. Notably, in October 2010, consultative examiner, Dr. Dieter, M.D., opined that plaintiff's "problems are likely treatable with some likelihood of recovery and improvement, " her "ability to interact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public as well as tolerate stress in the work environment is not particularly limited, " and "it is likely [she] would be able to do simple and repetitive tasks." Tr. 268. Dr. Dieter's opinion of plaintiff was made after reviewing two years of progress notes from her primary care provider and after plaintiff admitted to "relaps[ing] with alcohol and marijuana six months ago." Tr. 264. Similarly, in September ...

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