United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
September 9, 2014
KIMBERLY ANN SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.
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.
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.
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 this issue is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, so the court must defer to the ALJ's conclusion that the August 2011, letter was inconsistent with Dr. Bartels's other opinions. See id.
Third, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ relied on a mischaracterization of the August 2011, letter to justify rejecting it. The ALJ concluded that the opinion appeared to "relate her symptoms more to situational stressors than clinical mental disorders." (R&R at 6 (citing ARII at 41).) The ALJ supported this conclusion with language from the letter attributing Ms. Smith's symptoms to issues with finances and housing, and with other evidence concerning family issues. ( Id. at 6-7.) Ms. Smith argues that the correct interpretation of this portion of Dr. Bartels's letter is that her inability to tolerate stressors is a symptom of her mental illness. (Obj. at 8-10.)
This argument is equally unpersuasive. Again, it is the role of the ALJ, not the court, to resolve conflicting or ambiguous medical evidence. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039. The ALJ made a rational interpretation of the evidence. He also supported his finding with specific and legitimate reasons substantiated by evidence in the record. The court agrees, therefore, with Magistrate Judge Tsuchida that the ALJ's conclusions should be upheld.
B. November 2009, March 2010, and August 2011, opinions were properly rejected
The ALJ rejected three other opinions of Dr. Bartels because they were inconsistent with the doctor's other findings and Ms. Smith's daily activities, and contained what amounts to a legal conclusion regarding Ms. Smith's disability. (R&R at 8.) First, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting these opinions because one of the doctor's observations regarding Ms. Smith's eye contact was not "wholly supported by the record." (Obj. at 10.)
This argument was thoroughly and correctly addressed by Magistrate Judge Tsuchida. He notes that the ALJ relied on evidence that Ms. Smith was "progressing well, " and that she was "moving towards recovery, " in addition to the disputed eye contact evidence. (R&R at 8-9 (citing ARII at 41).) These observations constitute specific and substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's finding ( see id. ), but Ms. Smith urges the court to overturn this finding in favor of an alternative interpretation that could be reached by placing greater weight on evidence that supports her position ( see Obj. at 10). The court reiterates that this is not its proper role in reviewing the ALJ's decision. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954. Because the evidence before the ALJ was susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the ALJ's conclusion. See id.
Second, Ms. Smith claims that the ALJ erred by rejecting Dr. Bartels's opinion that Ms. Smith is disabled on the basis that it was a legal conclusion. (Obj. at 9.) Magistrate Judge Tsuchida, however, correctly noted that "an opinion that a claimant is disabled' or unable to work' is not a medical opinion" and need not be given special consideration because such an issue is reserved to the Commissioner. (R&R at 9 (citing 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(d)).) Ms. Smith claims that this rule was incorrectly applied to nonconclusory opinions of Dr. Bartels. (Obj. at 9-10.) This argument is without merit and raises no new issues that are not adequately addressed in Magistrate Judge Tsuchida's R&R.
In sum, Ms. Smith's objections were correctly addressed by Magistrate Judge Tsuchida's R&R. Moreover, the court has thoroughly examined the record before it and finds the Magistrate Judge's reasoning is persuasive in light of the record. For these reasons, the court ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation (Dkt. # 18) in its entirety, AFFIRMS the decision of the ALJ, DISMISSES Ms. Smith's complaint with prejudice, and DIRECTS the Clerk to send copies of this Order to Ms. Smith, to counsel for respondent, and to Magistrate Judge Tsuchida.