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Wesselius v. Berryhill

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

April 4, 2017

LAURA A. WESSELIUS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY 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 application for 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 January 7, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging she became disabled beginning February 1, 2007. Dkt. 12, Administrative Record (AR) 870. That application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. At a video hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), plaintiff appeared and testified. AR 34-67. She also amended her alleged onset date of disability to January 7, 2009. AR 870.

         In a decision dated December 1, 2010, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work, and therefore that she was not disabled. AR 16-27. Plaintiff's request for review of that decision was denied by the Appeals Council on August 1, 2011. AR 1. On April 25, 2012, this Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded this matter for further administrative proceedings. AR 1004-1028.

         A second hearing was held on remand before the same ALJ, at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. AR 905-959. In a decision dated July 14, 2014, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that she was not disabled. AR 870-893. It appears the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction of the matter, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision, which plaintiff then appealed in a complaint filed with this Court on February 12, 2016. Dkt. 3; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484.

         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 and other opinion evidence in the record, including from Mary Ballard, M.D., Janis Lewis, Ph.D., Shannon Kellogg, Psy.D., Victoria McDuffee, Ph.D., William Wilkinson, Ed.D., Sean Mee, Ph.D., Leslie Postovoit, Ph.D., Eugene Kester, M.D., Mary Gentile Ph.D., and Angela Coe, BS;
(2) in rejecting plaintiff's testimony;
(3) in evaluating the lay witness evidence in the record;
(4) in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC); and
(5) in finding plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion evidence from Dr. Lewis, Dr. McDuffee, and Ms. Coe, and thus in assessing plaintiff's RFC and in finding she could perform other jobs. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, 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 and ...


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