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Archuleta v. Colvin

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

January 31, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          The Honorable Richard A. Jones, United States District Judge.

         Richard Archuleta seeks review of the denial of his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Mr. Archuleta contends the ALJ erred in (1) concluding his impairments did not equal any of the Medical Listings; (2) evaluating the medical evidence; (3) rejecting his own testimony; (4) finding he could return to his past work or, alternatively, that he could perform other work existing in the national economy. Dkt. 9 at 1-2. Mr. Archulta contends this case should be remanded for a finding of disability and an award of benefits. Dkt. 9 at 2. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         On January 23, 2012, Mr. Archuleta applied for benefits, alleging disability as of September 18, 2010. Tr. 188-97. Mr. Archuleta's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 71-110, 115-32, 410. After conducting a hearing on January 28, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision on February 15, 2013, finding Mr. Archuleta not disabled. Tr. 27-42, 44-70. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Archuleta's request for review and Mr. Archuleta subsequently sought judicial review. Tr. 1-6. By order dated January 12, 2015, the district court reversed and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. Tr. 533-541. The ALJ conducted a second hearing on October 19, 2015, and on February 3, 2016, issued a decision again finding Mr. Archuleta not disabled. Tr. 410-23, 432-91.


         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [2] the ALJ found:

Step one: Mr. Archuleta has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 18, 2010, the alleged onset date.
Step two: Mr. Archuleta has the following severe impairments: unilateral vestibulopathy, acromioclavicular joint arthritis, chronic biceps rupture, and status post rotator cuff repair.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[3]
Residual Functional Capacity: Mr. Archuleta can perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he can occasionally climb ramps and scaffolds, and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. He can occasionally reach overhead with the left upper extremity. He must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights.
Step four: Mr. Archuleta can perform past relevant work as a cashier II and, as such, is not disabled.
Step five: Alternatively, as there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Archuleta can perform, he is not disabled.

Tr. 410-23. Mr. Archuleta now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's February 3, 2016 decision finding him not disabled. Dkt. 3.[4]


         A. Medical Evidence

         Mr. Archuleta contends the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence. Dkt. 9 at 8-13. Specifically, Mr. Archuleta contends the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of treating and examining physicians Larry G. Duckert, M.D., Ph.D. and Maciej Mrugala, M.D., and relying on the opinion of non-examining medical expert Peter R. DeMarco, M.D. Dkt. 9.

         In general, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than to a non-treating physician, and more weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to a nonexamining physician. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Where a treating or examining doctor's opinion is not contradicted by another doctor, it may be rejected only for clear and convincing reasons. Id. Where contradicted, a treating or examining physician's opinion may not be rejected without “specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record for so doing.” Id. at 830-31. “An ALJ can satisfy the ‘substantial evidence' requirement by ‘setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1011 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)). “The contrary opinion of a non-examining medical expert alone does not constitute a specific, legitimate reason for rejecting a treating or examining physician's opinion[.]” Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001). Rather, a non-examining opinion may constitute substantial evidence only “when it is consistent with other independent evidence in the record.” Id.

         1. Dr. Duckert's 2012 Opinion

         Mr. Archuleta contends the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Duckert's 2012 opinion. The Court disagrees.

         In 2012, otolaryngologist Dr. Duckert examined Mr. Archuleta and noted that he “described an event in June 2010, which was characterized by whirling disabling vertigo” and that he has had “a residual disequilibrium since along with a collection of other symptoms which are more difficult to describe.” Tr. 336. Dr. Duckert performed extensive vestibular testing which he found demonstrated “an absent response to caloric stimulus of the left ear” and concluded that Mr. Archuleta had “a significant left peripheral vestibulopathy responsible for his symptoms.” Id. Dr. Duckert opined that Mr. Archuleta was able to sit for prolonged periods with occasional pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls, could sit for most of the day, walk or stand for brief periods, could lift a maximum of 50 pounds and frequently lift or carry 25 pounds and that participation in a rehabilitation program ...

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