United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
JAMIE J. HORNBAKER, 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 his 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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On September 22, 2010, plaintiff filed concurrent applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI, alleging disability as of April 1, 2008, due to depression, anxiety, and left wrist pain. See Administrative Record ("AR") 183-98, 243. Plaintiff's applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 118-21, 125-29. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on September 18, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE). See AR 34-65.
On October 9, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 8-35. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on January 16, 2014, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-6; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On February 24, 2014, 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 May 6, 2014. See Dkt. No. 12. 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 payment of benefits, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; and (2) in finding him to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 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 the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the medical opinions of examining psychologist Tasmyn Bowes, PsyD. Dkt. No. 14, pp. 3-6; AR 354-77, 403-07, 490-504. Dr. Bowes diagnosed plaintiff with depressive disorder and panic disorder with agoraphobia, and opined plaintiff would have "moderate" to "marked/severe" limitations in the ability to perform activities within a schedule and maintain regular punctual attendance, and in the ability to complete a normal workday and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. AR 497.
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). 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 either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when a treating or examining physician'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.
Plaintiff argues the clear and convincing standard applies to the ALJ's analysis of the medical opinions of Dr. Bowes. See Dkt. No. 14, p. 6 (noting that check box forms completed by state agency reviewing physicians do not constitute substantial evidence sufficient to contradict the opinion of an examining specialist). See Lester , 81 F.3d at 830. Defendant appears to concede that the clear and convincing standard applies, yet argues the ALJ provided such reasons to reject the opinions of Dr. Bowes. Dkt. No. 15, pp. 3-4. Regardless, this Court finds that the reason offered by the ALJ for rejecting Dr. Bowes' opinion was not a specific and legitimate or clear and convincing reason supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Hoffman , 785 F.2d at 1425.
It is important to note that in summarizing Dr. Bowes' findings, the ALJ did not specifically discuss Dr. Bowes' function-by-function assessment of what plaintiff is capable of doing despite his mental impairments. See AR 20, 25 (noting only that plaintiff would have "moderately impaired ability to understand, remember, and complete basic tasks"). The ALJ decision does not acknowledge Dr. Bowes' opinions that plaintiff would have moderate to marked/severe limitations in performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular punctual attendance, and completing a normal workday and work week without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms. This is important because 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. ...