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Agatucci v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 30, 2015

APRIL AGATUCCI, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff April Agatucci brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

The issues before this Court are: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating a medical source statement submitted by plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Nelson; (2) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's testimony; and (3) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating a function report submitted by a lay witness. Because the ALJ articulated sufficient reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record for his evaluation of the respective evidence, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for DIB on November 19, 2009, alleging disability since February 1, 2008. Tr. 11, 160-63. This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 11, 83-86, 88-90. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and appeared via videoconference before the Honorable John Moreen on January 13, 2012, tr. 11, 56-80, and on April 6, 2012, tr. 11, 33-55. ALJ Moreen denied plaintiff's claim by a written decision dated April 27, 2012. Tr. 11-26. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

Plaintiff, born on January 24, 1974, tr. 24, 59, 160, graduated from high school, attended two years of college, tr. 60, 215, and worked most recently as a special education assistant (2007-2008), tr. 61, 215, and loan closer (2005-2006), tr. 63, 215. Plaintiff was thirty-four at the time of alleged disability onset, and thirty-eight at the time of her second hearing. See tr. 24, 59, 160. Plaintiff alleges disability due to: degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine; obesity; left hip osteoarthritis; post-traumatic stress disorder; pain disorder; major depression; generalized anxiety disorder; cognitive disorder; insomnia, and reduced cortisol production. See tr. 14, 189; Pl.'s Br. 2, ECF No. 15.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

DISCUSSION

The Social Security Administration utilizes a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's disability decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is based on an application of incorrect legal standards. In particular, plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating a medical source statement submitted by Dr. Nelson; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff's testimony; and (3) the ALJ erred in evaluating a function report submitted by a lay witness.

I. Dr. Nelson's Medical Source Statement

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating a medical source statement submitted by Dr. Nelson. See Pl.'s Br. 13-16, ECF No. 15. In response, defendant argues that the ALJ provided sufficient reasons for partially rejecting the medical source statement. See Def.'s Br. 10-14, ECF No. 17.

"To reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995)). "If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is contracted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citation omitted). When evaluating conflicting medical opinions, an ALJ need not accept a brief, conclusory, or inadequately supported opinion. Id. (citing Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001)). Because Dr. Nelson's medical source statement is contradicted in the record, [1] it can only be rejected by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff met with James Nelson, M.D. more than thirty times between February 2007 and January 2012. See tr. 317-69, 387, 422-31, 461-85, 495-99, 502-14, 520-22, 524-29, 551-56. On or about January 11, 2012, Dr. Nelson submitted a check-the-box medical source statement form on plaintiff's behalf. See tr. 531-34. In that form, Dr. Nelson opined that plaintiff's limitations included: an inability to perform either sustained sedentary or light work on a regular and continuing basis; moderately severe limitations in her ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; moderately severe limitations in her ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance and be punctual within customary tolerances; and severe limitations in her ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from medically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. Tr. 531-33. Dr. Nelson indicated that the onset date for plaintiff's non-exertional limitations was October 2010; approximately thirtytwo months after plaintiff's alleged onset date. See tr. 534.

The ALJ, having reviewed Dr. Nelson's medical source statement, rejected this statement because it was inconsistent with the medical record and lacked sufficient explanation. See tr. 19-21.

As to inconsistency with the medical record, plaintiff broadly asserts that select abnormal examination findings support Dr. Nelson's medical source statement. See Pl.'s Br. 14, ECF No. 15. This Court, having reviewed the record, is not persuaded.

First, the ALJ assigned "great weight" to the opinion of consultative examiner William Trueblood, Ph.D. See tr. 20. Plaintiff met with Dr. Trueblood on March 6, 2012 for a neuropsychological screening examination.[2] Based upon the results of this examination, Dr. Trueblood opined that plaintiff had moderate limitations in her ability to: understand and remember complex instructions; carry out complex instructions; make judgments on complex work-related decisions; interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers; and respond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting. Tr. 547-48. Dr. Trueblood also opined that plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability to interact appropriately with the public. Tr. 548. The ALJ gave greater weight to this opinion than to Dr. Nelson's medical source statement because "[Dr. Nelson] is not a specialist in mental health, and the findings of the consultative examiners and the record as a whole support the [RFC]." Tr. 21. To the extent that the ALJ considered Dr. Trueblood's specialization, such consideration was authorized under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(5) ("We generally give more weight to the opinion of a specialist about medical issues related to his or her area of specialty than to the opinion of a source who is not a specialist."); see also tr. 428 (On April 20, 2010, Dr. Nelson indicated that he was "at a loss [to] see how to manage her current situation. It seems apparent that there is a significant psychotic factor[] playing into her current physical issues....").

Second, the ALJ assigned some weight to the opinion of consultative examiner, Michelle Whitehead, MHNP, Ph.D. See tr. 21. Plaintiff met with Dr. Whitehead on April 4, 2010 for a clinical interview and mental status examination. See tr. 400-03. Based upon the results of this examination, Dr. Whitehead opined that plaintiff had "employable skills and should be able to work a modified schedule at least [on a] part time basis." Tr. 403. The ALJ considered Dr. Whitehead's examination findings, e.g., "adequate concentration, persistence and pace during the interview, " tr. 402, and concluded that these findings supported the RFC, tr. 21. This finding, which is not disputed by plaintiff, is reasonable.

Third, the ALJ assigned "substantial weight" to the opinions of consultant Drs. Eder and Boyd. See tr. 18. On February 16, 2010, Dr. Eder opined that plaintiff's exertional limitations restricted her to: occasionally lifting and/or carrying up to fifty pounds; frequently lifting and/or carrying up to twenty-five pounds; standing and/or walking about six hours in an eight-hour day; and sitting about six hours in an eight-hour day. See tr. 393. Dr. Eder further specified that "[i]t appears based on objective findings alone [claimant] would be capable of sustaining medium level work duties." Id. On July 12, 2010, Dr. Berner affirmed Dr. Eder's physical RFC findings. Tr. 436. The ALJ reasonably concluded that these opined functional limitations, which ...


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