United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
HEATHER M. LINDEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT
W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.
filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g),
seeking judicial review of the denial of Plaintiff's
applications for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) benefits. The parties have consented to
proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. See
28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate
Judge Rule MJR 13. See also Consent to Proceed
before a United States Magistrate Judge, Dkt. 6.
reviewing the record, the Court concludes the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not err in evaluating the
medical opinion evidence, Plaintiff's subjective symptom
testimony, or the lay witness opinion evidence. Further, the
additional evidence Plaintiff submitted to this Court, but
which was not considered by the Appeals Council, does not
render the ALJ's decision unsupported by substantial
evidence. Therefore, this matter is affirmed pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
August 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI.
See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (“AR”)
215-24. Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on April 1,
2009, due to depression, anxiety, back pain, fibromyalgia,
migraines, PTSD, and irritable bowel syndrome. See
AR 56-69 215, 244. Plaintiff's application was denied
upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration.
See AR 83-84, 104-05. A hearing was held before an
ALJ on April 18, 2014, at which Plaintiff, represented by
counsel, appeared and testified. See AR 38.
9, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the
meaning of Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the
Social Security Act. AR 29. Plaintiff's request for
review of the ALJ's decision, including the consideration
of new medical evidence supporting a fibromyalgia diagnosis,
was denied by the Appeals Council on February 19, 2016,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (the
“Commissioner”). See AR 1, 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.981, § 416.1481. On April 25, 2016, Plaintiff
filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of
the Commissioner's final decision.
argues the denial of benefits should be reversed and remanded
for an award of benefits, or in the alternative, for further
proceedings, because the ALJ: 1) failed to properly evaluate
the medical opinions from four examining psychologists, three
non-examining psychologists, one non-examining physician, and
one treating ARNP; 2) failed to properly evaluate the
testimony of one lay witness; 3) failed to properly evaluate
Plaintiff's testimony; and 4) erred in assessing
Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) Dkt. 13, p 2.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court 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 as a whole.
Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th
Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599,
601 (9th Cir. 1999)). “Substantial evidence” is
more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such
“‘relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'”
Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir.
1989) (quoting Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323,
325-26 (9th Cir. 1989)).
Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion
has the responsibility to determine credibility and resolve
ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence.
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir.
1988). 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). Determining whether or not 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.” Morgan v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 603 (9th
must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for
rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or
examining physician or psychologist. Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing
Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988);
Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir.
1990)). However, “[i]n order to discount the opinion of
an examining physician in favor of the opinion of a
nonexamining medical advisor, the ALJ must set forth
specific, legitimate reasons that are supported by
substantial evidence in the record.” Nguyen v.
Chater, 100 F.3d 1462, 1466 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing
Lester, 81 F.3d at 831). The ALJ can accomplish this by
“setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the
facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his
interpretation thereof, and making findings.”
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)
(citing Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751). In addition,
the ALJ must explain why the ALJ's own interpretations,
rather than those of the doctors, are correct.
Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725 (citing Embrey,
849 F.2d at 421-22). The ALJ “may not reject
‘significant probative evidence' without
explanation.” Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562,
570-71 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Vincent v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 1393, 1395 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Cotter v.
Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3d Cir. 1981))). The
“ALJ's written decision must state reasons for
disregarding [such] evidence.” Flores, 49 F.3d
Application of Standard
found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, subject to
additional physical and mental limitations. AR 19.
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could only:
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, and crawl. Further she should avoid concentrated
exposure to noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases,
poor ventilation and hazards such as machinery and heights.
She needs close access to a bathroom. She can perform
unskilled work with simple repetitive tasks, rare changes in
the work setting; rare judgment or decision-making; no
interaction with the general public as part of job duties;
and only occasional superficial interaction with co-workers,
dealing with things rather than people.
19-20. Plaintiff argues this RFC finding was incomplete, as
the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical opinions of
four examining psychologists, three non-examining
psychologists, one non-examining physician, and one examining
ARNP. Dkt. 13.
Daniel Neims, Psy.D.
Neims performed a medical evidence review on behalf of the
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services
(“DSHS”) on February 21, 2012. AR 541. As part of
his review, Dr. Neims considered the opinions of Michael
Brown, Ph.D., Kimberly Wheeler, Ph.D., and Tasmyn Bowes,
Psy.D., as well as medical records from Willapa Behavioral
Health up to January 10, 2012. AR 541. Based on his review of
this medical evidence, Dr. Neims opined Plaintiff would have
marked or severe limitations in her ability to: adapt to
changes in a routine work setting; maintain appropriate
behavior in a work setting; and complete a normal workday and
workweek without interruptions from psychologically based
symptoms. AR 542. Dr. Neims also opined Plaintiff would have
moderate limitations in her ability to: understand, remember,
and persist in complex tasks; learn new tasks; be aware of
normal hazards and take appropriate precautions; communicate
and perform effectively in a work setting with public