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Taylor v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

November 6, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Defendant.


J. RICHARD CREATURA, Magistrate Judge.

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13 (see also Notice of Initial Assignment to a U.S. Magistrate Judge and Consent Form, ECF No. 5; Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate Judge, ECF No. 7). This matter has been fully briefed (see ECF Nos. 19, 21).

After considering and reviewing the record and hearing oral argument on September 18, 2013, the Court finds that the ALJ erred when reviewing the medical evidence. He failed to properly discredit significant probative evidence from three mental health examiners, and failed to account for their opinions in his Residual Functional Capacity Assessment.

Therefore, this matter shall be reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings.


Plaintiff, Christian Taylor, was born in July, 1964. (Tr. 444). He was 43 years old at the time of the hearing. He has a high school education and has worked as a car salesman, cook/prep cook, house manager, nurse, and receiving dock/laborer. (Tr. 242). Mr. Taylor has a long history of severe mental health impairments, stemming from a tragic upbringing. Since the alleged onset date, Mr. Taylor has alleged he has been unable to sustain competitive employment on a regular and continuing basis due to a combination of impairments, including: major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe; anxiety disorder; insomnia; and chronic prostatitis. (Tr. 392, 418, 530).


On February 2, 2009, plaintiff protectively filed applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to title XVI of the Social Security Act and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") ( see Tr. 18, 193, 195). His application was denied initially on March 26, 2009 and following reconsideration on July 15, 2009 (Tr. 102, 107). Plaintiff's requested hearing was held before Administrative Law John P. Costello ("the ALJ") on February 16, 2011 ( see Tr. 51-97). On March 10, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that plaintiff was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act (Tr. 15-27).

May 9, 2012, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the written decision by the ALJ the final agency decision subject to judicial review (Tr. 1-6). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. In July, 2012, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's written decision ( see ECF Nos. 3). Defendant filed the sealed administrative record regarding this matter ("Tr.") on September 25, 2102 ( see ECF Nos.10, 11). In his Opening Brief, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when reviewing the medical evidence as well as when reviewing plaintiff's credibility and testimony ( see ECF No. 19, p. 1).


Plaintiff bears the burden of proving disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act (hereinafter "the Act"); although the burden shifts to the Commissioner on the fifth and final step of the sequential disability evaluation process. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999); see also Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140, 146 n. 5 (1987). The Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to a 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is disabled under the Act only if plaintiff's impairments are of such severity that plaintiff is unable to do previous work, and cannot, considering plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) ( citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)). "Substantial evidence" is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such "relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) ( quoting Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 325-26 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Regarding the question of whether or not substantial evidence supports the findings by the ALJ, the Court should "review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.'" Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (1996) (per curiam) ( quoting Andrews, supra, 53 F.3d at 1039). In addition, the Court must determine independently whether or not "the Commissioner's decision is (1) free of legal error and (2) is supported by substantial evidence.'" See Bruce v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 1113, 1115 (9th Cir. 2006) ( citing Moore v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 278 F.3d 920, 924 (9th Cir. 2002)); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996).

According to the Ninth Circuit, "[l]ong-standing principles of administrative law require us to review the ALJ's decision based on the reasoning and actual findings offered by the ALJ - not post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking." Bray v. Comm'r of SSA, 554 F.3d 1219, 1226-27 (9th Cir. 2009) ( citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947) (other citation omitted)); see also Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121, 2012 U.S.App. LEXIS 6570 at *42 (9th Cir. 2012); Stout v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) ("we cannot affirm the decision of an agency on a ground that the agency did not invoke in making its decision") (citations omitted). For example, "the ALJ, not the district court, is required to provide specific reasons for rejecting lay testimony." Stout, supra, 454 F.3d at 1054 ( citing Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 919 (9th Cir. 1993)). In the context of social security appeals, legal errors committed by the ALJ may be considered harmless where the error is irrelevant to the ...

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