United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
TRINNIA L. RAMSEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting 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 child 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 proceedings.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On November 4, 2010, plaintiff filed concurrent applications for child disability insurance benefits and SSI, alleging disability as of January 12, 1991, due to depression, bipolar affective disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder ("ADHD"). See Administrative Record ("AR") 194-209, 238. Plaintiff's applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 128-34, 140-45. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on April 25, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 43-76. Following this hearing, plaintiff amended her alleged disability onset date to November 8, 2008, thereby waiving her claim for child disability benefits. See AR 16, 300; Dkt. No. 19, p. 1.
On July 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 13-37. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on September 11, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-4; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On October 16, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See Dkt. No. 1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on January 22, 2013. See Dkt. No. 13. 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 further proceedings and development of the vocational record, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record; (4) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; (5) in finding her to be capable of returning to her past relevant work; and (6) in finding her to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's dismissal of her claim for child disability benefits. 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 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 the ALJ erred in his assessment of the medical opinion of examining psychologist Brett Trowbridge, PhD. Dkt. No. 19, pp. 11-17. Specifically, plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to address or reject the opinion of Dr. Trowbridge that plaintiff would have marked limitations in the ability to maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting due to plaintiff's mood swings, depression, and anxiety. See AR 304. Dr. Trowbridge defined "marked" as a "very significant interference" in the ability to perform basic work activities. AR 304.
The ALJ gave great weight to the specific functional limitations opined by Dr. Trowbridge because they were consistent with the record as a whole, including plaintiff's performance on mental status examinations. See AR 27. The ALJ gave no reason to reject Dr. Trowbridge's opinion that plaintiff's mood swings, depression, and anxiety would cause a very significant interference with plaintiff's ability to maintain appropriate behavior in a work setting. See AR 27. This limitation is significant because the basic mental demands of unskilled competitive work require the ability on a sustained basis to "respond appropriately to... usual work situations." Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-15, 1985 WL 56857*4. A substantial loss of the ability to perform this basic work-related activity would justify a finding of disabled under the Act. Id.
Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in his assessment of Dr. Trowbridge's opinion because the residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment, which limited plaintiff to "low stress [work]... not requiring more than rudimentary judgment, ... superficial interaction with coworkers, ... public interaction, and... intensive supervision", reasonably accommodated Dr. Trowbridge's opinion regarding plaintiff's marked limitation in maintaining appropriate behavior. AR 22. This Court disagrees.
The Commissioner "may not reject significant probative evidence' without explanation." Flores v. Shalala , 49 F.3d 562, 570-71 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Vincent v. Heckler , 739 F.2d 1393, 1395 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3d Cir. 1981))). An ALJ must explain why his own interpretations, rather than those of the doctors, are correct. Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Embrey v. Bowen , 849 F.2d 418, 421-22 ...