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Howard v. Colvin

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

June 2, 2015

JOHNY G. HOWARD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT’S PARTIAL DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

Karen L. Strombom United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of the defendant Commissioner’s partial denial of his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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, the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits prior to February 7, 2012 is reversed and that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 11, 2011, plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB. He also protectively filed an application for SSI on November 1, 2011. Both applications alleged disability as of January 1, 2009, due to depression and anxiety disorder. See Administrative Record (“AR”) 81, 98. His applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 96, 113, 130, 145. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 20, 2013, at which plaintiff appeared and testified without representation of counsel. AR 12, 33-53. Medical and vocational experts also testified at the hearing. See AR 12, 40-44, 51-53.

On April 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision in which plaintiff was determined to be disabled as of February 7, 2012. See AR 12-26. Plaintiff was awarded SSI benefits from February 7, 2012 forward. However, the February 7, 2012 onset date resulted in denial of DIB because his date of last insured was December 31, 2011. AR 26. Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision was denied by the Appeals Council on September 23, 2014, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision. See AR 1; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On November 14, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s decision. See ECF #3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on January 20, 2015. See ECF #10. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for judicial review and a decision by the Court.

Plaintiff argues the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and remanded to defendant for an award of benefits effective July 2011, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (2) in discounting plaintiff’s credibility; and (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record. The Court agrees the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled prior to February 7, 2012, but, for the reasons set forth below, finds that while the Commissioner’s decision should be partially reversed, 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 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. Comm’r 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. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 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 the Medical Evidence

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erroneously rejected evidence provided during the hearing testimony of John Nance, Ph.D., a non-examining medical expert. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ correctly exercised his role as “final arbiter” with respect to resolving ambiguities in the medical evidence. Dkt. 16 at 9. See, Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d at 1041. However, the Commissioner fails to note that the medical ambiguities pertained to plaintiff’s onset date and were not properly resolved by the ALJ.

The ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and determined an onset date of February 7, 2012 which differed from plaintiff’s amended alleged onset date of August 24, 2010. But, under Social Security Regulation (“SSR”) 83-20 determination of an onset date requires a “legitimate medical basis” which is established by calling a medical advisor at the hearing.

How long the disease may be determined to have existed at a disabling level of severity depends on an informed judgment of the facts in a particular case. This judgment, however, must have a legitimate medical basis. At a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) should ...

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