Teresa Landsom v. Jo Anne B Barnhart

Case 2:05-cv-02316-RZ Document 18 Filed 08/28/06 Page 1 of 4 Page ID #:41 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIF...

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Case 2:05-cv-02316-RZ Document 18 Filed 08/28/06 Page 1 of 4 Page ID #:41

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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

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CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

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TERESA LANDSOM,

) ) Plaintiff, ) ) ) vs. ) JO ANNE B. BARNHART, Commissioner ) ) of Social Security Administration, ) ) Defendant. )

CASE NO. CV 05-02316 RZ MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

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Plaintiff’s sole claim is that the Administrative Law Judge erred in assessing

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the mental aspects of her Residual Function Capacity (RFC), by improperly rejecting a

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treating physician’s opinion and favoring opinions of consultative examiners. Although

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the case presents a close call, the Court concludes that Plaintiff states insufficient grounds

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for remand or reversal, and therefore affirms.

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The Administrative Law Judge summarized the evidence from Plaintiff’s treating physician, and explained why she found his opinion unpersuasive, as follows:

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Claimant submitted a mental impairment questionnaire

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completed by Dau Van Nguyen, M.D., dated May 8, 2004. [AR

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383-86.] Dr. Nguyen diagnosed claimant with schizophrenia,

Case 2:05-cv-02316-RZ Document 18 Filed 08/28/06 Page 2 of 4 Page ID #:42

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polysubstance abuse disorder, hepatitis C and a GAF score of

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45. [AR 383.] Dr. Nguyen indicated claimant’s symptoms were

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consistent with the diagnoses. [AR 383-84.] Dr. Nguyen

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indicated claimant had a marked degree of limitation with

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restrictions of activities of daily living, marked degree of

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limitation with difficulties in maintaining social functioning,

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constant deficiencies of concentration, persistence or pace and

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repeat[ed] episodes of decompensation. [AR 386.] Dr. Nguyen

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indicated[,] [however, that] claimant would not have difficulty

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working at a regular job on a sustained basis. [Id.]

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...

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[T]he Administrative Law Judge has considered the

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administrative findings of fact made by the State agency

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physicians and other consultants. These opinions are weighed

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as statements from nonexamining expert sources. . . .The

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opinion of the State agency physician who completed the mental

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residual function capacity assessment and psychiatric review

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technique at Exhibits 11-12F [AR 279-97, prepared by

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psychiatrist Charles Stone, M.D.] is given more weight because

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it is consistent with the record. The opinions of [consulting

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mental examiner] Dr. Chau . . . are given more weight because

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they are familiar with the disability program, and they had an

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opportunity to examine claimant. . . . [T]he opinions of

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claimant’s treating sources were considered. The opinion of Dr.

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Nguyen is given less weight because it was inconsistent with the

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record and it was based on claimant’s subjective complaints

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without supporting objective evidence.

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Case 2:05-cv-02316-RZ Document 18 Filed 08/28/06 Page 3 of 4 Page ID #:43

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[AR 14-15 (emphasis added).] Earlier in her opinion, the Administrative Law Judge also

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provided a detailed summary of the conflicting medical evidence, including the opinion of

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consultative psychiatrist Clayton Chau, M.D., based on substantial evidence in the record.

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Dr. Chau noted some limitations, ultimately supporting the Administrative Law Judge’s

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finding of such “severe” mental ailments as schizophrenia, and a GAF of 45. But his

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bottom-line conclusion was that Plaintiff’s “[m]ental status exam is essentially within

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normal limits”; that Plaintiff only “has mild limitation[s] due to her emotional

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impairments”; and that “[m]alingering must be considered in the differential diagnosis.”

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[AR 14, 263.]

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An Administrative Law Judge may favor consultative examiners’ views over

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those of treating physicians if he “makes findings setting forth specific, legitimate reasons

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for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record.” Connett v. Barnhart, 340

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F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations omitted). The Administrative Law Judge

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satisfies this burden by setting forth a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and

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conflicting clinical evidence, stating his or her interpretation thereof, and making findings

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reasonably supported by that evidence. See Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th

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Cir. 1989). Moreover, “an ALJ may discredit treating physicians’ opinions that are

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conclusory, brief, and unsupported by the record as a whole . . . or by objective medical

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findings.” Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1195

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(9th Cir. 2004).

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Here, the Administrative Law Judge’s decision preferring the opinions of the

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non-treating doctors over Dr. Nguyen’s opinion satisfies the foregoing rules in at least two

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out of three notable respects. First, as suggested by Magallanes, the opinion includes a

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detailed and thorough summary of the key clinical evidence supporting Plaintiff’s position

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and Defendant’s position, followed by the Administrative Law Judge’s interpretations and

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findings, which enjoy substantial evidentiary support.

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Administrative Law Judge correctly noted that Dr. Nguyen’s opinion was quite conclusory

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and based on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints only and not on non-subjective evidence. -3-

Second, and critically, the

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(Plaintiff insists that Dr. Nguyen’s opinion was based on more than subjective complaints,

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but she cites no treatment notes or other evidence to support this assertion. See Pl.’s Mem.

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at 5.)

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A third basis cited in the opinion is less convincing. The Administrative Law

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Judge states that Dr. Nguyen’s opinion “was inconsistent with the record” while Dr.

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Stone’s views were “consistent with the record,” but these statements are unexplained.

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Were this the only stated reason for rejecting Dr. Nguyen’s opinion, it could not withstand

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review absent some explanation of how the two contending views were inconsistent, or

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consistent, with the weight of the other medical evidence. But in light of the other, and

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sound, rationales stated in the Administrative Law Judge’s opinion, the Court’s skepticism

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about this rationale is insufficient for reversal or remand, although the question is close.

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(Defendant advances several additional reasons why the decision is substantively sound,

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but the Court need not and does not address them because it may look only to the grounds

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articulated in the underlying administrative opinion, not to the Commissioner’s post

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hoc defenses of that opinion. See Ceguerra v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933

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F.2d 735, 738 (9th Cir. 1991).) In accordance with the foregoing, the decision of the Commissioner is

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affirmed.

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DATED: August 28, 2006

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/s/ Ralph Zarefsky RALPH ZAREFSKY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

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