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Nelson v. Berryhill

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

February 7, 2017

TERI L. NELSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          Karen L. Strombom United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed, and that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On September 13, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning December 31, 2006. Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (AR), 11. Both applications were denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. At a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), plaintiff appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. AR 29-79. Also at the hearing, plaintiff amended her alleged onset date of disability to November 8, 2011. AR 11.

         In a written decision dated February 27, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform both her past relevant work and other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that she was not disabled. AR 11-23. On June 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner, which plaintiff then appealed in a complaint with this Court on July 26, 2016. AR 1; Dkt. 1-3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred:

(1) in evaluating the medical opinion evidence from Terilee Wingate, Ph.D., Dan Neims, Psy.D., and Brian VanFossen, Ph.D.;
(2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility;
(3) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC); and
(4) in finding plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence from Drs. Wingate, Neims, and VanFossen, and thus in assessing plaintiff's RFC and in finding she can perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, but finds that remand for further administrative proceedings, rather than an award of benefits, is warranted.

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld 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 Soc. Sec. 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 nevertheless will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.” Carr, 772 F.Supp. at 525 (citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Sers., 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.

         The Commissioner's findings will be upheld “if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. Substantial evidence requires the Court to determine whether the Commissioner's determination 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, ” that decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen, 749 F.2d at 579 (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the evidence is inconclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts are functions solely of the [ALJ].” Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such situations, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the evidence “are material (or are in fact ...


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