United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ERINN C. CARL, 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 her application 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
Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 13, 2011, and an application for SSI benefits on May 23, 2011, alleging in both applications she became disabled beginning March 1, 2009. See Dkt. 11, Administrative Record ("AR") 14. Those applications were denied upon initial administrative review on August 3, 2011, and on reconsideration on March 19, 2012. See id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on June 6, 2013, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did plaintiff's mother and a vocational expert. See AR 33-69.
In a decision dated June 27, 2013, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 11-32. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on August 18, 2014, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1-7; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On September 30, 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 December 19, 2014. See Dkt. 11. 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 evidence in the record; (2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record; and (4) in making a residual functioning capacity ("RFC") assessment that was materially different from the hypothetical question to the vocational expert. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned agrees the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the record, in discounting plaintiff's credibility, in rejecting the lay witness evidence, and thus in assessing plaintiff's RFC, 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.
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 the Medical Evidence in the Record
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 Security 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 probative evidence has been rejected." Id .; see also Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3rd Cir. 1981); Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 610 (7th Cir. 1984).
With respect to the medical opinion evidence from examining psychologist Dr. Steven Johansen, Ph.D., the ALJ found as follows:
In August 2011, examining psychologist, Dr. Johansen, opined the claimant had no more than moderate limitations in cognitive functioning, and marked limitations in social functioning (Ex. 6F). The doctor gave a GAF score of 45. The opinion is given little weight because it is inconsistent with the doctor's clinical findings. Specifically, the doctor found the claimant had a sad and anxious affect and was often tearful, but presented pleasant and cooperative with appropriate eye contact. She performed well on memory and concentration tasks. It appears the doctor relied heavily on the claimant's subjective report of symptoms and limitations, which are not fully credible for the reasons stated throughout this decision. Of note, the doctor did not indicate whether he observed the claimant's reported symptoms (Ex. 6F/2).
AR 24. With respect to the medical opinion evidence from examining psychologist Dr. Michael Brown, ...