Rose Marie Esparza v. Andrew Saul

Filing 20

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER by Magistrate Judge Alexander F. MacKinnon. IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Judgment be entered affirming the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and dismissing this action with prejudice. (es)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 ROSE M. E., 1, 11 12 Case No. 5:20-cv-01199-AFM Plaintiff, 13 v. 14 ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, 15 16 MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER Defendant. 17 18 Plaintiff filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner’s final decision 19 denying her application for disability insurance benefits. In accordance with the 20 Court’s case management order, the parties have filed briefs addressing the merits of 21 the disputed issues. The matter is now ready for decision. 22 23 BACKGROUND 24 25 On October 23, 2017, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning March 10, 2016. The application was denied 26 27 28 Plaintiff’s name has been partially redacted in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2(c)(2)(B) and the recommendation of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management of the Judicial Conference of the United States. 1 1 initially and on reconsideration. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 60-72, 74-86.) On 2 December 12, 2019, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at a hearing conducted before an 3 Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). At the hearing, Plaintiff and a vocational expert 4 (“VE”) testified. (AR 35-59.) 5 On January 3, 2020, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff suffered 6 from the following medically severe impairments: obesity, fibromyalgia, anxiety 7 disorder, and depressive disorder. (AR 18.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff 8 retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with the 9 following limitations: she can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, 10 kneel, crouch, and crawl; she can never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; she can 11 have no exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous moving machine parts; she can 12 perform simple, routine tasks, but not at production rate pace as with an assembly 13 line; she can make simple, work-related decisions; and she can tolerate occasional 14 changes in the workplace environment. (AR 24.) Relying on the testimony of the VE, 15 the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform jobs existing in significant 16 numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of kitchen helper, counter 17 supply worker, and hand packager. (AR 29-30.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined 18 that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 10, 2016 through the date of his decision. 19 (AR 30-31.) The Appeals Council denied review (AR 7-12), rendering the ALJ’s 20 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 21 22 23 24 DISPUTED ISSUE Whether the ALJ provided legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of consultative examiner, Rashin D’Angelo, Ph.D. 25 26 STANDARD OF REVIEW 27 Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to 28 determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial 2 1 evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Treichler v. 2 Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial 3 evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. See 4 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 5 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a 6 reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 7 U.S. at 401. This Court must review the record as a whole, weighing both the 8 evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s 9 conclusion. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035. Where evidence is susceptible of more 10 than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner’s decision must be upheld. See 11 Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). 12 DISCUSSION 13 14 Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for 15 rejecting the opinions of Dr. D’Angelo. Specifically, Plaintiff points to 16 Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions that due to Plaintiff’s mental impairment, she is moderately 17 limited in her ability to complete a normal workday or work week and has moderate 18 difficulties in handling the usual stresses, changes and demands of gainful 19 employment. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ implicitly rejected these opinions 20 because he failed to explicitly incorporate them into the RFC. (ECF No. 17 at 7-15.) 21 The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated Dr. D’Angelo’s opinion 22 under the new regulations, which do not attribute special weight to the opinion of a 23 treating source. Further, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment 24 properly accounts for Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions. (ECF No. 18 at 7-20.) 25 A. The ALJ’s Decision 26 In summarizing the mental health evidence, the ALJ began by noting that 27 Plaintiff complained of stress in February 2015, before the alleged onset date. (AR 28 27, citing AR 311, 319.) In February 2016, Plaintiff’s primary care physician referred 3 1 Plaintiff for stress management. She was referred to stress management again in May 2 2016, although at that time she reported that her stress had improved since quitting 3 her job. (AR 325, 328.) As the ALJ noted, it does not appear that Plaintiff followed 4 up with the referral. 5 In August 2016, Plaintiff was prescribed antidepressant and antianxiety 6 medication. (AR 393, 395-396.) In March 2017, the dosage was increased. (AR 373, 7 375-376.) In April 2018, Plaintiff requested a referral to a psychologist and 8 psychiatrist. (AR 425.) The ALJ again noted that it does not appear that Plaintiff 9 pursued treatment with a psychologist or psychiatrist. (AR 27.) 10 Treatment notes from August 2018 reflect that Plaintiff’s anxiety was stable. 11 (AR 505.) The ALJ observed that other than one notation indicating Plaintiff was 12 tearful when discussing the reasons for quitting her job, the record contains few 13 positive clinical findings related to her mental impairments. In addition, the ALJ 14 pointed out the absence of evidence suggesting that Plaintiff required frequent 15 emergency room treatment or psychiatric hospitalization for her mental impairments. 16 The ALJ discussed in detail Dr. D’Angelo’s consultative psychological 17 examination of Plaintiff. (AR 27-28, citing AR 420-424.) Dr. D’Angelo’s report 18 indicates that Plaintiff complained of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, 19 anxiety, concentration problems, forgetfulness, difficulty sleeping, and panic attacks. 20 (AR 420.) A mental status examination revealed that Plaintiff appeared withdrawn, 21 but she was cooperative and maintained fair eye contact. Her speech was normal. 22 Plaintiff’s affect was flat. Plaintiff described her mood as depressed, tearful and 23 anxious. Plaintiff’s thought processes were linear and goal directed, but with 24 excessive ruminations. Plaintiff was able to register 3 out of 3 items at 0 minutes and 25 1 out of 3 at 5 minutes. Her abstract thinking, fund of knowledge, insight and 26 judgment were intact. (AR 422-423.) 27 Dr. D’Angelo diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder with anxiety and 28 depressed mood. (AR 423.) In Dr. D’Angelo’s opinion, Plaintiff has no limitations 4 1 performing simple or repetitive tasks; mild limitations performing detailed and 2 complex tasks; mild difficulties maintaining social function; mild difficulties 3 accepting instructions from supervisors and interacting with coworkers and the 4 public; mild difficulties in performing work activities on a consistent basis without 5 special or additional supervision; moderate difficulties focusing and maintaining 6 attention; moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace; moderate 7 limitations completing a normal workday or work week due to her mental condition; 8 and moderate difficulties handling the usual stresses, changes and demands of gainful 9 employment. (AR 423-424.) 10 The ALJ found Dr. D’Angelo’s opinion to be persuasive. As the ALJ 11 explained, Dr. D’Angelo’s opinion was supported by the objective findings from her 12 examination and was generally consistent with the evidence in the record which 13 showed some treatment for mental impairments but generally normal examinations. 14 (AR 28.) 15 The ALJ concluded that the medical record supported no more than moderate 16 limitations in functioning, which were adequately accommodated in the RFC limiting 17 Plaintiff to simple, routine tasks, not at product rate pace; work involving simple 18 work-related decisions; and only occasional changes in the workplace environment. 19 (AR 24, 28.) 20 B. Relevant Law 21 “[T]he ALJ is responsible for translating and incorporating clinical findings 22 into a succinct RFC.” Rounds v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1006 (9th 23 Cir. 2015); Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 1169, 1174 (9th Cir. 2008) (ALJ is 24 responsible for translating a claimant’s condition and limitations into an RFC that 25 “adequately captures restrictions” to the claimant's ability to work). The RFC – and 26 any resulting hypothetical presented to a vocational expert – “must set out all the 27 limitations and restrictions of the particular claimant.” Valentine v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. 28 Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted, emphasis in original). 5 1 An ALJ who accords substantial or great weight to a physician’s opinion must either 2 incorporate the findings into the RFC or explain why the ALJ chose not to accept 3 them. See, e.g., Martin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 472 F. App’x 580 (9th Cir. 4 2012). 2 5 C. Analysis 6 Plaintiff’s claim is based upon the premise that the ALJ rejected 7 Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions that she has moderate limitations completing a normal 8 workday or work week and moderate limitations in handling the usual stresses, 9 changes and demands of gainful employment. This premise is faulty. 10 The SSA defines a “moderate” limitation to mean “[t]here is more than a slight 11 limitation in this area, but the individual can still function satisfactorily.” See 12 Fergerson v. Berryhill, 2017 WL 5054690, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 1, 2017) (quoting 13 Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration, Form 14 HA-1152-U3, Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities 15 (Mental)); Cantu v. Colvin, 2015 WL 1062101, at *2–3 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 10, 2015) 16 (citing Form HA-1152-U3 as providing the definition of a “moderate” limitation). 17 While Dr. D’Angelo opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in these two areas, 18 she did not quantify her opinion. That is, Dr. D’Angelo did not indicate that Plaintiff 19 would be late or miss work any specific number of days a month. Nor did 20 Dr. D’Angelo indicate that Plaintiff was precluded from a specific quantity or kind 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 2 The bulk of the parties’ briefs consist of arguments about the effect of new regulations which provide that the Commissioner “will not defer or give any specific evidentiary weight ... to any medical opinion(s) ... including those from [the claimant's] medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520c(a), 416.920c(a). The Commissioner contends that these regulations supersede Ninth Circuit authority, such that an ALJ is no longer required to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a treating source’s opinion. (ECF No. 18 at 12-18.) Plaintiff argues that the specific and legitimate standard remains controlling law. (ECF No. 19 at 3-4.) The Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed whether or how the new regulations alter analysis of the adequacy of an ALJ’s reasoning. See Allen T. v. Saul, 2020 WL 3510871, at *3 (C.D. Cal. June 29, 2020). Because the Court concludes that the ALJ did not reject Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions but rather incorporated them into Plaintiff’s RFC, there is no need to address the effect of the regulations. 6 1 of workplace stress or change. (See AR 420-424.) Because Dr. D’Angelo, who is an 2 agency consultative examiner, did not provide a more particularized definition for 3 “moderate” limitations, she presumably used that word consistently with the Social 4 Security Administration’s (“SSA”) definition. See Fergerson, 2017 WL 5054690, at 5 *3 (“Dr. Ijeaku’s report did not provide a customized definition for a ‘moderate’ 6 limitation, so, as an agency consultative examiner, she presumably used that word 7 consistent with the Social Security Administration’s definition.”); Turner v. Colvin, 8 2015 WL 5708476, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Sep. 29, 2015) (in absence of custom definition, 9 court presumed that physician used term in accordance with relevant form definition 10 meaning “moderate limitation … in this area but the individual is still able to function 11 satisfactorily”), aff’d, 693 F. App’x 722 (9th Cir. 2017). Consequently, the ALJ could 12 reasonably have understood Dr. D’Angelo’s opinion as meaning that notwithstanding 13 some limitations, Plaintiff “can still function satisfactorily” in workplace attendance 14 and in handling the stresses, changes and demands of gainful employment. See 15 Arriola v. Astrue, 2008 WL 4926961, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 14, 2008) (the accepted 16 meaning of the term “moderate” defines term as “more than a slight limitation in this 17 area but the individual is still able to function satisfactorily”). 18 The ALJ’s RFC imposed significant limitations based upon Plaintiff’s mental 19 impairments. Specifically, the RFC restricts Plaintiff to simple, routine tasks, with 20 no work at production rate pace. It also restricts Plaintiff to making simple, work- 21 related decisions. In addition, the RFC limits Plaintiff to only occasional changes in 22 the workplace environment. There is no evidence in the record to suggest that 23 Dr. D’Angelo or any other treating, consulting, or reviewing source considered 24 Plaintiff to be wholly unable to complete a workday or work week, particularly if she 25 was limited to performing simple and routine tasks at a non-production rate pace, 26 simple, work-related decisions, and only occasional changes in the workplace 27 environment. See Stubbs-Danielson, 539 F.3d at 1173-1174 (noting that the ALJ’s 28 limitation to simple work sufficiently accommodated the examining and reviewing 7 1 physicians’ findings that the claimant had “several moderate limitations in other 2 mental areas”). On this record, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s RFC restrictions 3 fairly accommodated Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions. See, e.g., Jacque M. v. Saul, 2019 4 WL 6893965, at *8 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 18, 2019) (ALJ’s RFC effectively translated 5 physician opinion that plaintiff had “moderate limitations in completing a normal 6 workday or work week due to mental conditions, and handling the usual stresses, 7 changes, and demands of gainful employment,” by limiting plaintiff to simple and 8 repetitive tasks, no contact with the public, and limited contact with supervisors and 9 co-workers); Fergerson, 2017 WL 5054690, at *3–4 (RFC limiting plaintiff to non- 10 public, unskilled or semiskilled work fairly accommodated physician’s opinion that 11 plaintiff had moderate limitations in meeting schedules or maintaining attendance); 12 Amloian v. Colvin, 2016 WL 7223260, at *6 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 13, 2016) (“the ALJ’s 13 RFC assessment limiting Plaintiff to ‘simple, routine tasks, which are object oriented 14 in a habituated setting’ accommodated his moderate limitations in performing work 15 activities without special or additional supervision, completing a work week, and 16 managing stress.”); Lewis v. Colvin, 2015 WL 4164682, at *5 (C.D. Cal. July 9, 17 2015) (finding that ALJ did not err in translating “moderate limitations in performing 18 work activities on a consistent basis without special or additional supervision, 19 completing a normal work day or work week, and concentration, persistence and 20 pace” into restriction to “simple, routine, repetitive tasks”). Because the RFC fairly 21 incorporates Dr. D’Angelo’s opinions, the ALJ was not required to give specific and 22 legitimate reasons for “rejecting” them. Fergerson, 2017 WL 5054690, at *3–4 (ALJ 23 was not required to give specific and legitimate reasons for “supposedly” rejecting 24 physician opinion of a “moderate” attendance impairment, because the ALJ did not 25 in fact reject that finding). 26 /// 27 /// 28 /// 8 ORDER 1 2 IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Judgment be entered affirming the 3 decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and dismissing this action with 4 prejudice. 5 6 DATED: 4/26/2021 7 8 9 ____________________________________ ALEXANDER F. MacKINNON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 9

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