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Alto v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2017

GINA MARIE ALTO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 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 application for disability insurance and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. 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 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 April 12, 2013 plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging disability as of November 7, 1994. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (“AR”) 10. Her application was denied upon initial administrative review on August 16, 2013 and on reconsideration on February 26, 2014. See Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 1112 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Case 3:16-cv-05746-KLS Document 17 Filed 03/31/17 Page 2 of 14 judge (“ALJ”) on October 29, 2014 at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did Trevor Duncan, an impartial vocational expert. See AR 30-81.

         In a decision dated April 9, 2015, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 10-22. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on June 24, 2016, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). See AR 3-4; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On September 2, 2016 plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on November 7, 2016. See Dkt. 9. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.

         Plaintiff argues defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, because the ALJ erred:

(1) in discounting plaintiff's credibility; and
(2) in evaluating the medical evidence from Monica Pilarc, Ph.D., Gene McConnachie, Ph.D., and John Haroian, Ph.D.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in discounting plaintiff's credibility and assigning minimal weight to Dr. Pilarc and Dr. McConnachie's medical opinions, and therefore in determining plaintiff to be not disabled. However, the Court finds reversal and remand for further administrative proceedings, rather than an award for benefits, on this basis is warranted.

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the “proper legal standards” have been applied by the Commissioner, 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. Commissioner 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. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 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)).

         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Evidence in the Record

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court itself may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755, (9th Cir. 1989).

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, that opinion “can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31. However, the ALJ “need not discuss all evidence presented” to him or her. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why ...


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