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Enger v. Colvin

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

September 23, 2014

STEPHANIE L. ENGER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

J. RICHARD CREATURA, Magistrate Judge.

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13 ( see also Notice of Initial Assignment to a U.S. Magistrate Judge and Consent Form, ECF No. 3; Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate Judge, ECF No. 4). This matter has been fully briefed ( see ECF Nos. 11, 12, 13).

After considering and reviewing the record, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide a specific and legitimate reason for her failure to credit fully the opinions of an examining doctor and a treating doctor. The ALJ indicated that she was not crediting fully the opinion of the examining doctor because of a finding that the doctor relied on a "snapshot" of plaintiff's functioning, as the examining doctor only examined plaintiff on one occasion. However, as the ALJ discounted this doctor's opinion in favor of the opinions of doctors who never examined plaintiff at all, this reason is not legitimate. Similarly, the ALJ discounted the treating doctor's opinion in favor of non-examining state agency medical consultants with a finding that "it was based on a brief treatment relationship, which was insufficient to assess the claimant's functional limitations" (Tr. 23). As the opinions relied on by the ALJ were provided by doctors with no treatment relationship with plaintiff, and as plaintiff's impairments are mental impairments most effectively evaluated with an in-person evaluation, this reason is not legitimate. The ALJ also erred by finding that both of these doctors relied heavily on plaintiff's self-report without citing any substantial evidence in the record to support such findings.

Therefore, this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner for further administrative proceedings.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, STEPHANIE L. ENGER, was born in 1973 and was 36 years old on the amended alleged date of disability onset of February 12, 2010 ( see Tr. 34, 200, 206). Plaintiff graduated from high school (Tr. 37). She has work experience as a floral manager in a grocery store, shift supervisor in a fast food restaurant, cashier in a gas station, housekeeper/laundry in a nursing home, waitress, bartender and cook at a bar and grill, and sorter/stocker in a clothing store. Her last employment ended when it became too hard to be around people and she was having a hard time keeping track of what she had done (Tr. 38-42).

According to the ALJ, plaintiff has at least the severe impairments of "bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder with panic and with agoraphobia (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c))" (Tr. 16).

At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was living with her husband, 14 year-old son and 5 year-old daughter (Tr. 53-54).

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance ("DIB") benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423 (Title II) and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a) (Title XVI) of the Social Security Act were denied initially and following reconsideration ( see Tr. 136-38, 139-42, 144-48, 149-55). Plaintiff's requested hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Mattie Harvin Woode ("the ALJ") on November 8, 2012 ( see Tr. 31-81). On November 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision in which the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act ( see Tr.11-30).

In plaintiff's Opening Brief, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) Whether or not the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinions of Mary Lemberg, M.D. and Michael W. Johnson, M.D.; and (2) Whether or not the ALJ's errors were harmless ( see ECF No. 11, p. 1).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. ...


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