United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ALLISON M. CREIGHTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the Court hereby finds that for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings to reassess the medical opinion evidence of consultative examiner Shannon L. Jones, Ph.D.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On August 24, 2010, plaintiff protectively filed concurrent applications for Title II Disability Insurance benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), alleging disability as of July 1, 2001, due to a learning disorder, depression and bipolar affective disorder. See Administrative Record ("AR") 153-61, 182-88. Plaintiff's applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 101-07, 109-13. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on April 4, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did vocational expert ("VE") Susan Bachelder-Stewart, Ph.D. See AR 38-55.
On April 11, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 19-37. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on June 24, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-7; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On August 2, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See Dkt. No. 4. The administrative record was filed with the Court on October 9, 2013. See Dkt. No. 14. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for judicial review and a decision by the Court.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded to defendant for an award of benefits or, alternately, further development of the administrative record because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (2) in finding that the severity of plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a Listing; (3) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; and (4) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity. The Court agrees the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, but, for the reasons set forth below, finds that while defendant's decision should be reversed, this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
The determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the "proper legal standards" have been applied by the Commissioner, and the "substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports" that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) ("A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.") (citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 ("[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record."). "The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine" whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required." Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). "If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, " the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.") (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).
I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence in the Record
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the medical opinion evidence of consultative examiner Shannon L. Jones, Ph.D. Dkt. No. 16 pp. 6-8, 11-12. Dr. Jones opined that plaintiff may not have the ability to interact appropriately with others and did not appear to have the ability withstand the pressures associated with day-to-day work, would not be able to carry out work activities with adequate pace and perseverance and could not be expected to maintain a regular work schedule or complete a normal work day without interruptions. AR 326. These limitations are significant because the VE testified that an individual who is off task for more than 15% of a work day or who is unable to maintain a regular schedule could not sustain competitive employment. AR 53.
The ALJ offered three reasons for rejecting the opinion of Dr. Jones: (1) Dr. Jones performed a one-time evaluation; (2) Dr. Jones' findings relied heavily on plaintiff's testimony, which was not credible; and (3) Dr. Jones' opinion was inconsistent with plaintiff's activities of daily living, which included caring for her children, playing with her children, watching television, visiting with friends and preparing meals. AR 30-31 (citing AR 225-32 regarding plaintiff's daily activities). None of these reasons are a clear and convincing reason supported by substantial evidence necessary to reject the testimony of an examining psychologist. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996).
The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence "are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount" the opinions of medical experts "falls within this responsibility." Id. at 603. In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings "must be supported by specific, cogent reasons." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725.
The ALJ must provide "clear and convincing" reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining psychologist. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when an examining psychologist's opinion is contradicted, that opinion "can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id. at 830-31. The ALJ can accomplish this by "setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his ...