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Smith v. Colvin

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

September 9, 2014

KIMBERLY ANN SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of United States Magistrate Judge Brian A. Tsuchida (R&R (Dkt. # 18)), and Plaintiff Kimberly Ann Smith's objections thereto (Objections (Dkt. # 19)). Having carefully reviewed all of the foregoing, along with all other relevant documents and the governing law, the court ADOPTS the R&R, AFFIRMS the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and DISMISSES Ms. Smith's complaint with prejudice.

II. BACKGROUND

Ms. Smith is a 53-year-old female who applied for and was denied social security benefits. (ARII (Dkt. # 10-10) at 42, 44.) She suffers from anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder, and previously worked as a retail manager. ( Id. at 32; ARI (Dkt. # 10-2) at 27.) She has not held full-time employment since March 2009. (ARII at 32.) This is the second time this matter comes before the court. Ms. Smith's initial denial of benefits was remanded for reconsideration of medical opinion evidence, Ms. Smith's credibility, and the evaluation process. See Smith v. Astrue, No. C09-1582RSL-MAT, 2010 WL 2696476 (W.D. Wash. June 4, 2010), adopted by Smith v. Astrue, No. C09-1582RSL, 2010 WL 2696481 (W.D. Wash. July 6, 2010). In August 2011, the ALJ conducted a second hearing and concluded that Ms. Smith is not disabled and thus not entitled to disability benefits. (ARII at 44.) Ms. Smith appealed but the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction of the case. ( Id. at 2-4.) She then appealed to this court. (R&R at 2.) Magistrate Judge Tsuchida issued an R&R recommending that the Commissioner be affirmed ( see R&R), and Mr. Hall objected to that R&R ( see Objections).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A district court has jurisdiction to review a Magistrate Judge's R&R on dispositive matters. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). "The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Id. "A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which specific written objection is made. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). "The statute makes it clear that the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise." Id. When no objections are filed, the court need not review de novo the R&R. Wang v. Masaitis, 416 F.3d 992, 1000 n.13 (9th Cir. 2005).

Although review of an R&R is de novo, the court must defer to the ALJ's factual findings and may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits only if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). In this way, the court's review of the R&R is different from the court's review of the underlying decision of the ALJ. With respect to the underlying decision, the court must examine the record as a whole and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The ALJ determines credibility, resolves conflicts in medical testimony, and resolves any other ambiguities that may exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the ALJ's conclusion. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954.

IV. DISCUSSION

Ms. Smith objects to Magistrate Judge Tsuchida's conclusion that the ALJ gave clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the opinions of treating psychiatrist Mary Bartels, M.D., and clinical case manager Daniel Davidson, MA, LMHCA. (Obj. at 2; R&R at 5.) Her objection pertains to a joint opinion letter of Dr. Bartels and Mr. Davidson, and three other written statements of Dr. Bartels. As explained in more detail below, the court concludes that none of Ms. Smith's objections raise issues that justify reversing the ALJ or otherwise disagreeing with the reasoning contained in Magistrate Judge Tsuchida's R&R.

A. August 2011, joint opinion letter was properly rejected

First, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ erred in considering medical opinion evidence prior to September 2009, in determining that an August 2011, letter was inconsistent with other opinions of Dr. Bartels. She claims that the August 2011, letter "clearly described" a decline in her mental health beginning in September 2009. (Obj. at 4.) Thus, she concludes that evidence suggesting her condition was manageable prior to the alleged date of decline is consistent with the August 2011, letter. ( Id. )

This argument is unpersuasive and raises no new issues. Magistrate Judge Tsuchida correctly concluded that the records relied upon by the ALJ were within the amended period of disability and so were properly considered as medical opinion evidence. (R&R at 6.) He also notes that the ALJ considered this evidence along with other evidence documented after Ms. Smith's alleged decline. (R&R at 6-8.) It is not the role of the court in such cases to reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954. It is the job of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicts in medical testimony. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. Here, the court cannot conclude that medical opinion evidence occurring between the amended period of disability and the alleged date of decline is susceptible to only one rational interpretation. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954. The ALJ, therefore, did not err in considering that evidence to support its finding regarding inconsistency.

Second, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ failed to consider certain notes and opinions in determining that the August 2011, letter was inconsistent with other opinions of Dr. Bartels. (Obj. at 8.) She references medical notes made by Dr. Bartels and others that emphasize the decline of her mental health beginning in September 2009, to support her contention that those notes are consistent with the August 2011 letter. ( Id. at 5-7.) In so doing, Ms. Smith simply asks the court to adopt her interpretation of the evidence. Here, the ALJ considered the letters and opinions to which Ms Smith cites and reached a different conclusion, one supported by specific facts in the record. ( See id. at 7-8.) Once again, it is not the role of the court to reweigh evidence. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954. Here, the evidence on ...


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