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Linden v. Colvin

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

January 20, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         After 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).


         On 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.

         On May 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.

         Plaintiff 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.


         Under 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)).


         I. Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion Evidence.

         A. Standard

         The ALJ 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 Cir. 1999).

         The ALJ 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 at 571.

         B. Application of Standard

         The ALJ 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.

         AR 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.

         1. Daniel Neims, Psy.D.

         Dr. 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 contact; ...

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