Coffman v. Commissioner of Social Security

Filing 21

ORDER by Judge Kandis A. Westmore denying Plaintiff's 18 Motion for Summary Judgment; granting Defendant's 19 Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. (kawlc1, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 9/22/2017)

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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 5 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 6 7 JESSICA LYNN COFFMAN, Plaintiff, 8 9 10 11 Case No. 4:16-cv-00101-KAW ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Re: Dkt. Nos. 18, 19 United States District Court Northern District of California Defendant. 12 13 Plaintiff Jessica Lynn Coffman seeks judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of 14 the Commissioner’s final decision, and the remand of this case for payment of benefits, or, in the 15 alternative, for further proceedings. 16 Pending before the Court is Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and Defendant’s 17 cross-motion for summary judgment. Having considered the papers filed by the parties, and for 18 the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and 19 GRANTS Defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment. 20 21 I. BACKGROUND On December 16, 2011, Plaintiff Jessica Lynn Coffman filed a Title II Disability Insurance 22 (“DI”) Benefits application. Administrative Record (“AR”) 67, 303. Plaintiff’s application 23 alleges a disability onset date of May 27, 2011. AR 303. Plaintiff’s claim was denied on May 4, 24 2012. AR 194-198. Plaintiff’s Request for Reconsideration was denied on February 13, 2013. AR 25 201-207. A hearing was held by videoconference before Administrative Law Judge Nancy M. 26 Stewart on April 21, 2014. AR 67-80. 27 28 Plaintiff is thirty-three years old and lives with her husband and two children. AR 93-94, 303. Plaintiff has not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 27, 2011. AR 69. 1 Plaintiff has a bachelor’s degree in history. AR 91, 538. At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she 2 had previously worked as a program assistant managing computer and weapons systems for a 3 defense contractor, worked as a program assistant performing predominantly secretarial work, and 4 also had retail experience. See AR 91, 100-103. 5 Plaintiff reportedly began treatment with medication for multiple sclerosis when she was a 6 junior in high school. AR 642. Plaintiff obtained care from neurologist Jody Corey-Bloom, MD, 7 Ph.D from July 2010 to April 2014, who also noted that Plaintiff had depression. AR 435-436, 8 542-533, 559-561, 713-722. 9 On December 20, 2012, Kenneth Stover, D.O. performed a consultative neurological assessment, during which Plaintiff’s chief complaint was multiple sclerosis. AR 615-619. Dr. 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 Stover diagnosed Plaintiff with multiple sclerosis, relapsing and remitting, and 18 months 12 gestation. AR 617. He opined that Plaintiff was currently in remission and had no limitations in 13 standing, walking, lifting, carrying, sitting, pushing, or pulling, stooping, kneeling, or crouching. 14 AR 618. He further stated that she could climb stairs, ramps, and perform unprotected balancing, 15 but that she was frequently functionally limited in the use of scaffolds, ropes, and ladders, but had 16 no functional limitations in stooping, kneeling, crouching, or manipulative limitations in reaching, 17 handling, and fingering. Id. Dr. Stover opined that Plaintiff may have limitations during 18 exacerbations of her condition. Id. She had no visual or communicative functional limitations. AR 19 619-620. 20 On April 12, 2012, Colette Valette, Ph.D performed a consultative psychological 21 examination. AR 538-540. Dr. Valette noted that Plaintiff’s chief complaints were multiple 22 sclerosis, extreme physical fatigue, weakness, and anxiety. AR 358. Plaintiff also reported slow 23 cognitive processing, and difficulty putting words to her thoughts. Id. Dr. Valette noted that 24 Plaintiff became more fatigued as the evaluation progressed, and, at the end, her eyes appeared 25 glassy. AR 538-539. Dr. Valette administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth 26 Edition (WAIS-IV), which revealed a Verbal Comprehension Index of 105 (average range), a 27 Perception Reasoning Index Score of 90 (average range), a Working Memory Index Score of 95 28 (average range), a Processing Speed Index Score of 62 (deficient range), and a Full Scale I.Q. of 2 1 87 (low average range). AR 539. Despite Plaintiff’s deficient processing speed, Dr. Valette 2 estimated that Plaintiff was intellectually functioning in the average range. Id. Dr. Valette opined 3 that Plaintiff would not require supervision, but that it would be difficult for her to sustain an 4 ordinary routine for an eight-hour workday in order to complete simple, detailed, and complex 5 tasks due to extreme fatigue and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. AR 539-540. Dr. Valette 6 further opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability to concentrate in two-hour 7 increments. AR 540. On May 4, 2012, State Agency medical consultant Eric Weiner, Ph.D. performed a 9 psychiatric review of Plaintiff’s medical records and assessed her mental functional capacity. AR 10 160-173. Dr. Weiner diagnosed Plaintiff with multiple sclerosis and an affective mood disorder, 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 8 and opined that Plaintiff experienced mild restrictions in her activities of daily living, mild 12 difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and moderate difficulties in maintaining 13 concentration, persistence, or pace. AR 166. Dr. Lee did an accompanying physical functional 14 capacity report and confirmed that Plaintiff had multiple sclerosis and affective mood disorder, but 15 retained the residual function capacity to perform jobs that exists in significant numbers in the 16 national economy. AR 172, 174. 17 On February 13, 2013, State Agency medical consultant Elizabeth Covey, Psy.D 18 performed a psychiatric review of Plaintiff’s medical records and assessed her mental functional 19 capacity. AR 183-185, 188-189. Dr. Covey found that Plaintiff experienced limitations in 20 sustained concentration and persistence. AR 188. She also determined that Plaintiff was not 21 significantly limited in her ability to carry out very short and simple instructions, moderately 22 limited in her ability to carry out detailed instructions, and moderately limited in her ability to 23 maintain attention and concentration for extended periods. Id. Dr. Covey found that Plaintiff was 24 not significantly limited in terms of: her ability to perform activities with a schedule, maintain 25 regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; her ability to sustain an ordinary 26 routine without special supervision; her ability to work in coordination with others without being 27 distracted by them; and her ability to make simple, work-related decisions. Id. Dr. Covey found 28 that Plaintiff’s ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruption from 3 1 psychologically-based symptoms would be moderately limited. Id. Dr. Covey noted that Plaintiff’s 2 sustained concentration and persistence limitations would limit her to simple, repetitive tasks with 3 brief lapses of focus in a low demanding work environment. Id. 4 On January 7, 2013, Dr. Brodsky, D.O., in considering the entire medical record, opined 5 that Dr. Valette’s medical opinion overestimated Plaintiff’s restrictions and limitations, because it 6 was only based on a snapshot of her functioning. AR 189. 7 On May 20, 2014, the ALJ issued her decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. 8 AR 67-80. On July 18, 2014, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s 9 decision. AR 60-62. The ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on November 10, 2015. AR 1-7. Plaintiff now seeks 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 12 On July 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed her motion for summary judgment. (Pl.’s Mot., Dkt. No. 13 18.). On August 15, 2016, Defendant filed its opposition and cross-motion for summary 14 judgment. (Def.’s Opp’n, Dkt. No. 19.) Plaintiff did not file a reply, so the motions are fully 15 briefed. 16 17 II. LEGAL STANDARD A court may reverse the Commissioner’s denial of disability benefits only when the 18 Commissioner's findings are 1) based on legal error or 2) are not supported by substantial 19 evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 20 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a 21 preponderance”; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to 22 support a conclusion.” Id. at 1098; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). In 23 determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the 24 Court must consider the evidence as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the 25 evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Id. “Where evidence is susceptible 26 to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r 27 of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). 28 Under Social Security Administration (“SSA”) regulations, disability claims are evaluated 4 1 according to a five-step sequential evaluation. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 2 1998). At step one, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is currently engaged in 3 substantial gainful activity. Id. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At 4 step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment 5 or combination of impairments,” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Reddick, 157 F.3d 715 at 6 721. If the answer is no, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the answer is yes, the Commissioner 7 proceeds to step three, and determines whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment 8 under 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If this requirement is 9 met, the claimant is disabled. Reddick, 157 F.3d 715 at 721. 10 If a claimant does not have a condition which meets or equals a listed impairment, the United States District Court Northern District of California 11 fourth step in the sequential evaluation process is to determine the claimant's residual functional 12 capacity (“RFC”) or what work, if any, the claimant is capable of performing on a sustained basis, 13 despite the claimant’s impairment or impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant can 14 perform such work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). RFC is the application of a legal 15 standard to the medical facts concerning the claimant's physical capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). 16 If the claimant meets the burden of establishing an inability to perform prior work, the 17 Commissioner must show, at step five, that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful 18 work that exists in the national economy. Reddick, 157 F.3d 715 at 721. The claimant bears the 19 burden of proof in steps one through four. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-954 (9th 20 Cir. 2001). The burden shifts to the Commissioner in step five. Id. at 954. 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 III. THE ALJ’S DECISION As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. AR 69. The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 27, 2011, the alleged onset date. AR 69. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: multiple sclerosis and depression. AR 69. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination 5 1 of impairments that met or equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 2 AR 69. Before considering step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform 3 4 sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), except that she can lift, carry, push, and 5 pull 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. AR 71. Plaintiff can also stand 6 and walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday, except that she cannot do prolonged 7 walking for more than 15 minutes at a time, and she can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour 8 workday. Id. Plaintiff cannot climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds; she cannot work in hazardous 9 conditions, such as working at unprotected heights, operating fast or dangerous machinery, or driving commercial vehicles. Id. She cannot perform work that requires hypervigilance or work 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 where she watches for the safety of others. Id. She is limited to unskilled work, and a work 12 environment that is static. Id. She cannot perform fast-paced work, and she is limited to frequent 13 handling and fingering. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 14 15 16 78. At step five, the ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, 17 and residual functional capacity, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national 18 economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 78-79. Therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled within the 19 meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 79. 20 21 IV. DISCUSSION Plaintiff makes two arguments in her motion for summary judgment: (1) that the ALJ 22 rejected her consultative medical examiner’s opinion without providing specific and legitimate 23 reasons supported by medical evidence; and (2) that the ALJ erred when she assigned great weight 24 to the non-examining physicians. (See Pl.’s Mot. at 7, 9.) 25 In evaluating medical evidence from different physicians, the Ninth Circuit distinguishes 26 between the opinions of three types of physicians. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 27 1995). The three categories are as follows: (1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); 28 (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who 6 1 neither examine nor treat the claimant (nonexamining physicians). Id. at 830. Generally, more 2 weight should be given to the opinion of the treating physician than to the opinion of doctors who 3 do not treat the claimant. Id. The opinions of treating medical sources may be rejected only for 4 clear and convincing reasons if not contradicted by another doctor and, if contradicted, only for 5 specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence. Id. Where the ALJ fails to provide 6 adequate reasons for rejecting the opinion of a treating or examining physician, that opinion is 7 accepted as true. Id. at 834. 8 9 A. The ALJ properly discounted the opinion of examining medical source Dr. Valette. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s rationale for discounting Dr. Colette Valette’s medical opinion was without specific and legitimate reasons. (Pl.’s Mot. at 7.) If a treating or examining 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 doctor’s opinion is contradicted by another doctor’s opinion, an ALJ may only reject it by 12 providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence....” Bayliss v. 13 Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). “The ALJ need not accept the opinion of any 14 physician, including a treating physician, if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately 15 supported by clinical findings.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th 16 Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). 17 On April 12, 2012, Dr. Valette performed a consultative neurological examination while 18 Plaintiff was suffering a relapse of her MS. AR 538-540. Dr. Valette noted that Plaintiff’s chief 19 complaints were multiple sclerosis, extreme physical fatigue, weakness, and anxiety. AR 358. Dr. 20 Valette noted that Plaintiff became more fatigued as the evaluation progressed, and, at the end, her 21 eyes appeared glassy. AR 538-539. While Plaintiff’s WAIS-IV results showed that her processing 22 speed was in the deficient range, Dr. Valette still estimated that Plaintiff was intellectually 23 functioning in the average range. AR 539. Dr. Valette opined that, due to extreme fatigue and 24 other symptoms of MS, Plaintiff would experience difficulty in sustaining an ordinary routine for 25 an eight-hour workday. AR 539-540. Dr. Valette further opined that Plaintiff had marked 26 limitations in her ability to concentrate in two-hour increments. AR 540. 27 28 The ALJ provides several reasons why she declined to give Dr. Valette’s opinion great weight. AR 74. These reasons will be discussed below. 7 1 2 i. Examination was a snapshot Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by discounting the opinion, because she 3 impermissibly characterized it was a “snapshot.” (Pl.’s Mot. at 7.) While Plaintiff is correct that 4 the mere characterization of a snapshot without any other information would be in error, the ALJ 5 explained what she meant using the term. In fact, the ALJ notes that the examination itself is not 6 consistent with the overall evidence, which shows that Plaintiff “perseveres at many activities.” 7 AR 74. The undersigned also notes that the State Agency review physicians also characterized the 8 report as being a snapshot, presumably because it was a single day while Plaintiff was in relapse. 9 See AR 171, 189. Then the ALJ immediately and accurately stated that Dr. Valette is not an expert in MS, so, taken in context, the undersigned presumes that the ALJ meant that Dr. Vallete’s 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 observations on a single day cannot apply to Plaintiff on other days. Thus, the ALJ did not err by 12 simply characterizing Dr. Valette’s opinion as a “snapshot.” 13 14 ii. Plaintiff’s processing speed Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discounting Dr. Valette’s opinion because she did so 15 by impermissibly interpreting the raw data. (Pl.’s Mot. at 7.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the 16 ALJ made a medical finding when she discounted the deficient processing score on the grounds 17 that “she managed to finish the tests.” (Pl.’s Mot. at 8; AR 74.) What Plaintiff does not address, 18 however, and which the ALJ noted, is that Dr. Valette also opined that, despite her processing 19 deficiency, Plaintiff’s overall intellectual functioning was in the average range. AR 74, 539. 20 Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ did not impermissibly interpret raw medical data, 21 22 because she cited to Dr. Valette’s own findings. iii. General discounting based on specialty 23 Lastly, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not provide an adequate explanation for 24 discounting Dr. Valette’s opinion, in part, on the grounds that she is not a medical doctor. (Pl.’s 25 Mot. at 8.) The ALJ noted that Dr. Valette is a clinical psychologist, rather than an expert in 26 internal medical or multiple sclerosis, rendering “[h]er opinions regarding fatigue and symptoms 27 related to multiple sclerosis [beyond] her field of study.” AR 75. Even still, Plaintiff contends that 28 even if the limitations noted are beyond her expertise, it “does not constitute a basis to reject Dr. 8 1 Valette’s opinion regarding [Plaintiff’s] ability to sustain concentration for at least two-hour 2 increments at a time in order to maintain a regular work schedule. (Pl.’s Mot. at 8 (citing AR 3 540).) This, however, misstates the ALJ’s decision, which merely did not afford great weight to 4 Dr. Valette’s opinion, because Dr. Valette’s training and expertise did not extend to symptoms of 5 MS and how those disease-specific symptoms impact concentration over the course of an extended 6 period of time. Instead, all Dr. Valette observed was how Plaintiff performed on a single day while 7 in relapse. 8 Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in assigning little weight Dr. Valette’s opinion. 9 B. 10 The ALJ did not err in assigning great weight to non-examining physicians. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s assignment of great weight to the non-examining physicians United States District Court Northern District of California 11 is not substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision. (Pl.’s Mot. at 9.) As an initial matter, 12 the ALJ cited to several other medical opinions in her determination that Plaintiff was not as 13 limited as Dr. Valette’s opinion suggested. See AR 73-78. In fact, Plaintiff reported to the 14 consulting neurologist that she could walk 1 1/2 to 2 miles with some fatigue at the end. AR 73, 15 617. Thus, Plaintiff’s own self-reporting contradicts Dr. Valette’s opinion regarding the severity of 16 her symptoms. See AR 617. 17 Plaintiff further contends that “the State Agency opinions were based primarily on the 18 same test results Dr. Valette recorded and merely represented a difference in interpretation.” (Pl.’s 19 Mot. at 9.) The ALJ noted that the State Agency review psychiatrists concluded that Plaintiff had 20 a severe affective disorder, which caused mild limitations in activities of daily living and social 21 functioning, moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of 22 decompensation, which limited her to simple, repetitive tasks with brief lapses of focus in a low- 23 demanding work environment. AR 78, 166-167, 184-186. In opposition, Defendant argues that 24 Plaintiff’s characterization is inaccurate, because Drs. Weiner and Covey reviewed the entire 25 record, and based their opinions on various other factors, including the fact that Plaintiff presented 26 normal clinical findings on other office visits, Plaintiff’s demanding activities of daily living, and 27 that she did not take any psychotropic medication. (Def.’s Opp’n at 7 (citing AR 78, 167, 184- 28 186.) The Court agrees, because the State Agency review psychiatrists listed the records they 9 1 reviewed, and explicitly noted their disagreements with the various medical opinions. AR 166- 2 167, 184-186. Thus, the ALJ did not err in assigning great weight to the non-examining opinions. 3 In light of the foregoing, the ALJ’s assessment of the conflicting medical opinion evidence 4 was proper and supported by substantial evidence. V. 5 6 7 8 9 CONCLUSION For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED, Defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: September 22, 2017 __________________________________ KANDIS A. WESTMORE United States Magistrate Judge 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 10

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