United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ORDER REMANDING CASE TO SOCIAL SECURITY COMMISSIONER
JOHN C. COUGHENOUR, District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the Honorable Magistrate Judge Brian Tsuchida's Report and Recommendation regarding Plaintiff's Social Security appeal (Dkt. No. 18). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court hereby ADOPTS IN PART the Report and Recommendation, REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision, and REMANDS for further administrative proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for the reasons explained herein.
Mr. Parris was born on February 15, 1958 and was fifty-three years old at the time of his Social Security application. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 14 at 7. Following high school graduation, he had worked as a school custodian and store clerk. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2. In 2004, while employed in the latter capacity, a workplace accident caused his back to "snap." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 18. As a result, he allegedly suffers severe lumbar spine degenerative disc disease and spondylosis that have prevented him from working. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 33. His injury has given rise to a host of other ailments including obesity, affective disorder, personality disorder, substance abuse, attention deficiency disorders, and mild but recurrent bouts of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas.
In 2011, Mr. Parris applied for Social Security Disability Income but was rejected. The Administrative Law Judge (hereafter "ALJ") based this decision on his review of Mr. Parris's medical records, including the medical examination performed by Dr. Mark Heilbrunn, and on the lengthy deposition of the applicant. The ALJ analyzed this evidence in five steps, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At the first step, the ALJ found Mr. Parris had not been substantially and gainfully employed since 2004. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 13. At the second, he found that none of Mr. Parris's ailments equated to a listed impairment. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 14-16. At the third, he found that Mr. Parris retained a Residual Functional Capacity (hereafter "RFC") for light work. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 16. Mr. Parris could "understand, remember, and carry-out the simple instructions of jobs... He [could] make judgments on simple, work-related decisions, respond appropriately to supervision and co-workers, and deal with changes in a stable work environment. He [could have occasional interaction with the general public." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 16. At the fourth, the ALJ recognized that such an RFC precluded Mr. Parris from working again as a custodian or clerk. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 20. The ALJ concluded at the fifth step, however, that Mr. Parris would be capable of working as a house cleaner and small parts assembler, jobs "which exist in significant numbers in the national economy." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 21. Consequently, the ALJ found that Mr. Parris was not disabled. Mr. Parris filed an administrative appeal but the Appeals Council denied review. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 2.
He therefore brought this action on August 22, 2014, asking that the Court find him to have become disabled as of August 1, 2005 and remand to the SSA for calculation of his award. Dkt. No. 3. He argues that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Heilbrunn's conclusion that his RFC limited him to sedentary work and improperly impugned his credibility. On February 3, 2015, Judge Tsuchida issued a Report and Recommendation addressing Mr. Parris's arguments. Dkt. No. 18. He recommended further proceedings with a vocational expert to determine the significance of Dr. Heilbrunn's conclusions and an affirmation of the ALJ's credibility assessment. Dkt. No. 18 at 7. The Court largely adopts Judge Tsuchida's recommendations.
A. Dr. Heilbrunn's Medical Opinion
The ALJ rejected Dr. Heilbrunn's conclusion that Mr. Parris was limited to sedentary work because he believed it contradicted the doctor's objective findings and Mr. Parris's reported daily activities. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 20. When one doctor's medical opinion has not been challenged by another, however, the ALJ must find "clear and convincing reasons" to reject it. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). Such reasons must be "specific[, ] legitimate, " and supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 831.
Dr. Heilbrunn based his conclusions upon his January 2011 examination of Mr. Parris and his review of relevant medical records. During the examination, he found that Mr. Parris "manifest[ed] postural range of motion limitations of his hip and lumbar back, " "could be expected to sit for at least 20-25 minutes uninterrupted... and has a maximum sitting capacity of 5 to 6 out of 8 hours, with periods for postural repositioning." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 37. He could also "be expected to stand/walk for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted, as manifested in the examination room/clinic, and has a maximum standing/walking capacity of 3-5 out of 8 hours." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 37. While he could lift items of up to eight pounds easily, he could not lift ten pounds without "increased lumbar pain and he was unable to carry this out for more than a few minutes." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 37. Dr. Heilbrunn also reviewed a 2008 MRI scan of Mr. Parris's lumbar spine. Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 32. That scan showed multilevel disc disease, neuroforaminal narrowing, and diffuse disc bulging.
The ALJ rejected Dr. Heilbrunn's conclusion limiting Mr. Parris to sedentary work because the doctor had found that Mr. Parris was "able to complete all ranges of motion within his ability and mount/dismount the examination table without assistance. He was able to hop down from the examination table without the use of a step stool." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 37. He could stoop almost to the floor and "effect a partial crouch, kneel, and crawl." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 7 at 37. Such findings, the ALJ concluded, demonstrated that Mr. Parris's disc disease was "not significant." Dkt. No. 12, Ex. 2 at 20.
The ALJ, however, failed to address one of Dr. Heilbrunn's finding limiting Mr. Parris's carrying capacity to eight pounds. Because the regulatory definition of "light work" requires "frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to ten pounds, " this finding would support the Doctor's conclusion that Mr. Parris is incapable of such work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). This finding is uncontradicted by the report of Mr. Parris's daily activities, including preparing meals, cleaning and laundry, and household repairs. Such chores do not require the frequent lifting and carrying of more than ten pounds.
Accordingly, the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons to reject Dr. Heilbrunn's conclusion limiting Mr. Parris's RFC to sedentary work. This conclusion requires the ALJ to reexamine whether there are less-than-light jobs that Mr. Parris might remain able to perform. Without further evaluation and vocational expert ...