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Caramella v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 30, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MICHAEL McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mark A. Caramella brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits. This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

On February 1, 2011, Caramella filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. Following a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) determined Caramella is not disabled. TR 7.[1] Caramella argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly rejecting the opinion of treating physician Dr. Michels; and (2) improperly rejecting lay witness testimony of Megan Dunning. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


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 in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, we review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment' for that of the Commissioner." Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1996)).


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 (2012). The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If the claimant satisfies his 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 must show 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. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).

At step two, the ALJ found that Caramella suffers from severe impairments of lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, marijuana dependence and abuse, and cervical spine degenerative disc disease. TR 12.

In assessing Caramella's Caramella's RFC, the ALJ concluded Caramella could perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). TR 15. Specifically, the ALJ determined Caramella is limited to simple, repetitive tasks, and is restricted to lifting, without assistance, only to shoulder height with the non-dominant upper extremity, only occasional gripping and grasping, and no use of the keyboard. Id. At step four, the ALJ determined Caramella is unable to perform any past relevant work. TR 22. At step five, the ALJ determined Caramella was capable of performing the jobs of room cleaner and bakery worker. TR 23. The ALJ therefore concluded Caramella was not disabled. Id.

I. Dr. Michels' Opinion

Caramella argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Michels. The ALJ gave more weight to other medical opinions, opinions that differed from that of Dr. Michels. "Where there exists conflicting medical evidence, the ALJ is charged with determining credibility and resolving any conflicts." Chaudhry v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012).

There is some debate as to whether Dr. Michels qualifies as a treating source.[2]

Treating source means your own physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who provides you, or has provided you, with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with you. Generally, we will consider that you have an ongoing treatment relationship with an acceptable medical source when the medical evidence establishes that you see, or have seen, the source with a frequency consistent with accepted medical practice for the type of treatment and/or evaluation required for your medical condition(s). We may consider an acceptable medical source who has treated or evaluated you only a few times or ...

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