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Buchanan v. Colvin

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

February 25, 2015

MALINA BUCHANAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. This matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule MJR 4(a)(4) and as authorized by Mathews, Secretary of H.E.W. v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the undersigned submits the following Report and Recommendation for the Court's review, recommending that for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits be reversed and this matter be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 6, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications she became disabled beginning September 15, 2000. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record ("AR") 144. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review on July 24, 2008, and on reconsideration on October 27, 2008. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on April 5, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did plaintiff's mother and a vocational expert. See AR 41-77. At that hearing, plaintiff's counsel moved to dismiss the application for disability insurance benefits due to lack of medical evidence, which was granted by the ALJ. See AR 15, 44, 144.

In a decision dated April 19, 2011, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 144-53. On October 6, 2011, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review of the denial of her application for SSI benefits, remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. See AR 163-65. On remand, a hearing was held before a different ALJ on July 17, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a medical expert and the same vocational expert. See AR 78-136. In a decision dated October 11, 2012, that ALJ found plaintiff to be not disabled as well. See AR 15-28.

Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on March 28, 2014, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On May 14, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on July 22, 2014. See Dkt. 10. 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, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical opinion evidence from Terrill R. Utt, M.D., Mark Heilbrunn, M.D., and David Lischner, M.D.; (2) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity; and (3) 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 undersigned agrees the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Heilbrunn, in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity and in finding her 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 undersigned recommends that while defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed on this basis, this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

DISCUSSION

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)).[1]

I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Heilbrunn'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 draw "specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755, (9th Cir. 1989).

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. However, the ALJ "need not discuss all evidence presented" to him or her. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.3d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why "significant ...


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