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Stauffer v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Washington, Seattle

May 7, 2015



A Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge

The Court has reviewed and carefully considered the Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) of United States Magistrate Judge John L. Weinberg, Dkt. # 18; plaintiff’s “Objections To Report And Recommendation, ” Dkt. # 19; defendant’s response thereto, Dkt. # 20; and the balance of the record. The Court ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation, and AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner, for the following reasons:


A district court has jurisdiction to review a Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation on dispositive matters. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). “The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge’s disposition that has been properly objected to.” Id. “A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court reviews de novo those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which a specific written objection is made. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). “The statute makes it clear that the district judge must review the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise.” Id.

Although review of an R & R is de novo, the Court must defer to the factual findings of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and may set aside the Commissioner’s denial of social security benefits only if the ALJ’s findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). In this way, the Court’s review of the R & R is different from the Court’s review of the underlying decision of the ALJ. With respect to the underlying decision, the Court must examine the record as a whole and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The ALJ determines credibility, resolves conflicts in medical testimony, and resolves any other ambiguities that may exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold the ALJ’s conclusion. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954.

Claimants bear the burden of proving that they are disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment that has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. See Valentine v. Comm’r of Sec. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009).


A. Lena Swanson, Psy.D.

The R & R adequately summarizes the history of this case and the ALJ’s findings; thus, the Court focuses on plaintiff’s objections. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Lena Swanson, who examined plaintiff in September 2009 and concluded that plaintiff “is likely able to work productively and get along with others given a supportive and understanding work environment, and one in which his work is clearly defined and highly structured.” AR 558. Specifically, plaintiff argues that, despite claiming to give Dr. Swanson’s findings “significant weight, ” AR 22, the ALJ’s residual function capacity assessment (“RFC”) and his hypotheticals to the vocational expert (“VE”) in the case did not limit plaintiff to working in a “supportive and understanding” work environment with “clearly defined and highly structured” work. Dkt. # 19 at 3. Plaintiff contends that Magistrate Judge Weinberg erred in finding that Swanson did not expressly limit plaintiff to such a work environment, and further erred in finding that the RFC accounted for the limitations identified by Swanson. Id. at 4.

While an ALJ’s RFC must be consistent with a doctor’s opinion (that the ALJ does not provide specific and legitimate reasons to reject), it need not be identical to this opinion. See Turner v. Comm’r of Sec. Sec. Admin., 613 F.3d 1217, 1222-23 (9th Cir. 2010). However, an ALJ’s hypothetical to a vocational expert must reflect all limitations that are supported by substantial evidence in the record; if it does not, then the vocational expert’s testimony has no evidentiary value to support a finding that the claimant can perform jobs in the national economy. Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161-62 (9th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted); see Bayliss, 427 F.3d at 1217-18 (hypothetical to VE need only include limitations supported by substantial evidence in the record).

Contrary to Magistrate Judge Weinberg, the Court agrees with plaintiff that, according to a plain reading of Dr. Swanson’s assessment, plaintiff requires the above type of environment in order to work productively. Nevertheless, this Court concurs with Magistrate Judge Weinberg that the ALJ’s RFC properly accounted for the limitations Swanson identified. The ALJ accommodated plaintiff’s need for clearly-defined and highly-structured work by limiting him to unskilled, repetitive and routine work; and accommodated plaintiff’s need for a supportive and understanding work environment by limiting him to employment where he could be off-task 5% of the time and where he would have limited interaction with coworkers and supervisors and no contact with the public. Limiting plaintiff’s interactions with others specifically accommodates plaintiff’s problems with interpersonal interaction, which are noted in Swanson’s assessment and clearly contribute to his need for an “understanding and supportive” environment. See AR 558.

The Court disagrees with plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusions, and that the above reasoning impermissibly affirms an ALJ’s finding on a basis not articulated by the ALJ. The ALJ’s opinion recited Dr. Swanson’s findings, including Swanson’s broad statement about the type of work environment plaintiff requires; and then provided an RFC that was clearly consistent with and clearly accounted for ...

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