United States District Court, W.D. Washington, at Tacoma
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 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 this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On July 24, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications she became disabled beginning September 16, 2008. See ECF #12, Administrative Record ("AR") 21. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on January 27, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 37-70.
In a decision dated March 22, 2011, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 21-31. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on March 27, 2012, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. After the Appeals Council issued its denial decision, plaintiff filed two more applications for disability insurance and SSI benefits, also alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning September 16, 2008. See AR 519.
Plaintiff appealed defendant's decision to deny her initial applications to federal court, which on January 16, 2013, reversed that decision and remanded this matter for further administrative proceedings. See AR 625-39. On remand, a second hearing was held before the same ALJ, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a psychological expert and a vocational expert. See AR 550-77. In a decision dated November 29, 2013, the ALJ again determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 519-40.
It does not appear from the record that the Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction of the case, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, § 416.1484. On May 28, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of that decision. See ECF #1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on June 5, 2014. See ECF #12. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.
Plaintiff argues defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the opinions of James J. Nakashima, M.D., Lisa Doherty, M.D., and Robert E. Schneider, Ph.D.; (2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; (3) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; and (4) in finding plaintiff to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Schneider, in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity and in finding plaintiff to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore in determining plaintiff to be not disabled. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, the Court finds that while defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed on this basis, this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.
The determination of 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. Commissioner of Social Security 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. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 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 Dr. Schneider's Opinion
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). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, "questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts" are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, "the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Morgan v. Commissioner of the Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence "are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount" the opinions of medical experts "falls within this responsibility." Id. at 603.
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 can do this "by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences "logically flowing from the evidence." Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court itself may ...