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Piacente v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

April 15, 2014

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


J. RICHARD CREATURA, Magistrate Judge.

This matter has been referred to United States Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Magistrate Judge Rule 4(a)(4), and as authorized by Mathews, Sec'y of H.E.W. v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 271-72 (1976). This matter has been fully briefed ( see ECF Nos. 13, 21, 22).

After considering and reviewing the record, the undersigned finds that the ALJ erred in failing to account fully for the State agency psychological opinions, with respect to plaintiff's limitations in working with the general public. The ALJ purported to give significant weight to those opinions, but when the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ did not limit plaintiff's interaction with the public, and did not explain why that limitation was not included. On remand, the ALJ should reassess those limitations and either fully account for them, or provide legally sufficient reasons to reject them.


Plaintiff, KELLI PIACENTE, was born in 1985 and was 24 years old on the alleged date of disability onset of October 1, 2009 ( see Tr. 165-74). Plaintiff was in special education classes and graduated from high school (Tr. 56-57). Plaintiff worked for approximately four years as a janitor, but was terminated for job abandonment and failure to comply with the Employee Assistance Program (Tr. 185, 188).

The administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff has the severe impairments of learning disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; avoidant and dependent traits; and methamphetamine abuse and dependence in reported remission (Tr. 25).

At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was 21 weeks pregnant and living with her mother (Tr. 52-53).


Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 423 and Supplemental Security Income benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a) of the Social Security Act ("the Act") ( see Tr. 165-174). The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 95-102, 108-28). ALJ Kimberly Boyce held a hearing on December 21, 2011 ( see Tr. 44-90). On February 2, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision finding plaintiff not disabled ( see Tr. 20-40).

On February 4, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's written decision the final agency decision subject to judicial review (Tr. 1-5). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's written decision in April, 2013 ( see ECF Nos. 1, 3). Defendant filed the sealed administrative record regarding this matter ("Tr.") on August 5, 2013 ( see ECF Nos. 10, 11).

In plaintiff's Opening Brief, she raises the following issues: (1) Whether or not the ALJ accounted for all of plaintiff's limitations in the RFC assessment; (2) Whether or not the ALJ gave legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinions of Norma Brown, Ph.D., and Catherine Howe, Ph.D.; and (3) Whether or not the errors in the ALJ's decision were harmful and warrant remand for further proceedings or for payment of benefits ( see ECF No. 13, p. 1-2).


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)). 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.'" Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) ( citing Magallanes, supra, 881 F.2d at 750).

In addition, the Court must independently determine 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) (collecting cases)); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996) ( citing Stone v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 530, 532 (9th Cir. 1985)). 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 Social Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1225-26 (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 (9th Cir. 2012) ("we may not uphold an agency's decision on a ground not actually relied on by the agency") ( citing Chenery Corp., supra, 332 U.S. at 196). In the context of social security ...

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