9th Cir. case re: 2017 Social Security medical opinion regulations

The panel affirmed the district court’s decision which affirmed the Commissioner of Social Security’s denial of claimant’s application for benefits under the Social Security Act.

The panel held that recent changes to the Social Security Administration’s regulations displaced the prior case law requiring an ALJ to provide “specific and legitimate” reasons to reject an examining doctor’s opinion.  For claims filed on or after March 27, 2017, which are subject to the new regulations, the former hierarchy of medical opinions – in which the court assigned presumptive weight based on the extent of the doctor’s relationship with the claimant – no longer applies.  While the panel agreed with the Commissioner that the “specific and legitimate” standard was irreconcilable with the 2017 regulations, the panel held that the extent of the claimant’s relationship with the medical provider remains relevant under the new regulations.  An ALJ may consider the length and purpose of the treatment relationship, the frequency of examinations, the kinds and extent of examinations that the medical source has performed or ordered, and whether the medical source has examined the claimant or only reviewed the claimant’s records.  However, the ALJ no longer needs to make specific findings regarding those relationship factors.  Even under the new regulations, an ALJ cannot reject an examining or treating doctor’s opinion as unsupported or inconsistent without providing an explanation that is supported by substantial evidence.

Here, the ALJ acknowledged Dr. Causeya’s opinion that the claimant had marked and extreme limitations in multiple cognitive areas of functioning, including memory and concentration, but the ALJ found this opinion unpersuasive because it was inconsistent with the overall treating notes and mental status exams.  The panel held that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s inconsistency finding.