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Halstead v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 11, 2013

Brian Halstead, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

DAVID G. CAMPBELL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Brian Halstead applied for disability and supplemental security income benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on November 1, 2000.[1] Tr. 79-81, 274-276, 238-245. His claims were denied initially on June 18, 2002 (Tr. 277-82), and upon reconsideration on September 12, 2002 (Tr. 283-87). Plaintiff was granted a hearing in which he appeared before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on December 11, 2003. Tr. 60, 17. In an opinion dated March 9, 2004, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Tr. 14-23. The ALJ's March 9, 2004, decision became the Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review on October 26, 2004. Tr. 7-9. Plaintiff sought judicial review of Defendant's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and on August 4, 2005, the district court granted the parties' stipulation for remand. Halstead v. Barnhart, No. 2:04-cv-02608-NVW (Aug. 4, 2005). On remand, Plaintiff was granted a hearing in which he appeared before an ALJ on September 12, 2006. Tr. 1416. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 7, 2007. Tr. 1233-1250. In response to Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1251-1264), the Appeals Council remanded the matter for further proceedings on February 10, 2009 (Tr. 1268-1272). Plaintiff was granted a hearing and appeared before an ALJ on June 8, 2010. Tr. 1458. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act in a decision dated October 25, 2010. Tr. 310-322. The ALJ's decision became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review on July 12, 2012. Tr. 288-291. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review. Doc. 1. For reasons that follow, the Court will reverse Defendant's decision and remand for an award of benefits.[2]

I. Standard of Review.

Defendant's decision to deny benefits will be vacated "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). "Substantial evidence' means 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." Id. In determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the decision and the evidence that detracts from it. Reddick v. Charter, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The Court cannot affirm the decision "simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975); see Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

II. Analysis.

For purposes of Social Security benefits determinations, a disability is "the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. Determining whether a claimant is disabled involves a five-step evaluation. The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four of showing that (1) he is not engaged in a substantial gainful activity, (2) he has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, and (3) the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity ("RFC") precludes him from performing his past work.[3] If at any step the Commissioner determines that a claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis ends; otherwise it proceeds to step five. The Commissioner bears the burden at step five of showing that the claimant has the RFC to perform other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) & 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Tr. 313. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: depressive disorder not otherwise stated, personality disorder not otherwise stated, and a history of amphetamine abuse. Id. The ALJ determined at step three that none of these impairments or their combination met or equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 313-315. The ALJ then considered the entire record and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: mild to moderate limitations in terms of cognitive functioning and social interaction; and those "set forth in Exhibits 5F and 6F." Tr. 315. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled because he was capable of performing his past relevant work. Tr. 322.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to identify and resolve discrepancies in the RFC analysis (Doc. 18 at 1-2), improperly weighing medical opinions ( id. at 14), by failing properly to evaluate Plaintiff's credibility ( id. at 23), and by improperly rejecting third party witness testimony ( id. at 28).

A. The RFC Assessment.

The ALJ determined that "the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant has mild to moderate limitations in terms of cognitive functioning and social interaction. In addition, the specific non-exertional functional limitations set forth in Exhibits 5F and 6F are incorporated herein and made a part of the claimant's residual functional capacity assessment." Tr. 321. Exhibit 5F (Tr. 264-273) contains notes from the January 15, 2004, consultative mental evaluation conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. David Young. Dr. Young opined that Plaintiff has no limitations in his ability to understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions (Tr. 272), and that his functional limitations are slight with respect to his abilities to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, make judgments on simple work-related decisions, interact appropriately with the public, with supervisor(s), and with co-workers, respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting, and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting (Tr. 272-273). Exhibit 6F (Tr. 1338-1350) contains the June 16, 2009, consultative mental evaluation conducted by licensed psychologist Dr. Elliot Salk. Dr. Salk opined that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in his ability to understand and remember complex instructions (Tr. 1348), no limitation in his ability to carry out simple instructions ( id. ), and that his functional limitations are mild with respect to his abilities to understand and remember simple instructions, make judgments on simple work-related decisions, carry out complex instructions, make judgments on complex work-related decisions, interact appropriately with the public, supervisor(s), and co-workers, respond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting (Tr. 1348-1349).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment constitutes legal error because the ALJ did not identify the limitations in Exhibits 5F and 6F, and failed to resolve discrepancies in their limitations. Doc. 18 at 2. For the first argument, Plaintiff cites Reddick, 157 F.3d 715, for the proposition that "[a] Court should not have to sift through the evidence to ascertain the ALJ's RFC assessment" (Doc. 18 at 2), but Plaintiff does not provide a page cite for this holding and, in any event, the Court does not agree that reversible error is a consequence of the fact that the Court must sift through evidence. As to the second argument, the Court agrees that there are discrepancies in the limitations set forth in the evaluations of Drs. Young and Salk. For instance, Dr. Young opined that Plaintiff has no limitation in his ability to understand and remember short, simple instructions (Tr. 272), while Dr. Salk concluded that Plaintiff has mild restrictions (Tr. 1348). Additionally, while Dr. Young found that Plaintiff has slight limitations in his ability to understand and remember detailed instructions (Tr. 272), Dr. Salk found that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in his ability to understand and remember complex instructions (Tr. 1348). Although there do appear to be conflicts in the ALJ's RFC assessment, the Court concludes that any error is harmless because the ALJ imposed more limitations in Plaintiff's RFC than the evaluations of Drs. Young and Salk required, and these additional limitations benefit Plaintiff. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) ("the court will not reverse an ALJ's decision for harmless error, which exists when it is clear from the record that the ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination." (quotation marks and citations omitted)). As Plaintiff submits (Doc. 18 at 2), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC contained greater cognitive functioning and social interaction limitations than set forth in the evaluations of Drs. Young and Salk.

B. Medical Opinion Evidence.

"The ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence." Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1041; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d); SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *2 (July 2, 1996). Regarding the weight that an ALJ should give to a particular medical opinion, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes between the opinions of treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). "The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). The ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating or examining physician by making "findings setting forth specific legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record." Id. "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." Id.

Opinions of examining or consulting physicians alone may constitute substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision when they are consistent with other evidence in the record. See Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 752 (9th Cir. 1989) ("[T]he reports of consultative physicians... may serve as substantial evidence."); Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin, 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999) ("Opinions of a nonexamining, testifying medical advisor may serve as substantial evidence when they are supported by other evidence in the record and are consistent with it."); Thomas, 278 F.3d at 957 ("The opinions of non-treating or non-examining physicians may... serve as substantial evidence when the opinions are consistent with ...


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