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Lynch v. Berryhill

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

April 14, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Shenise Faye Lynch appeals the ALJ's July 22, 2016, decision finding her not disabled. She contends the ALJ misevaluated the medical opinions regarding her chronic vomiting syndrome (“CVS”) and improperly rejected her testimony. Dkt. 13 at 1. For the reasons below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the case for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         In March 2012, Ms. Lynch applied for benefits, alleging disability as of November 4, 2011. Tr. 216-28. After her applications were denied, Tr. 134-42, 147-54, the ALJ conducted a hearing on April 3, 2013, Tr. 37-52, and subsequently found Ms. Lynch not disabled. Tr. 12-30. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. Tr. 967-80. After holding a second hearing on June 7, 2016, Tr. 892-931, the ALJ again found Ms. Lynch not disabled. Tr. 869-81. Ms. Lynch seeks judicial review of that decision.


Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:
Step one: Ms. Lynch had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since November 4, 2011.
Step two: Obesity, patellofemoral syndrome, cyclic vomiting syndrome, major depressive disorder, intellectual disability, and anxiety disorder with panic features were severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”): Ms. Lynch can perform light work, with additional limitations. She should avoid “concentrated exposure to extremes of heat, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, etc., and hazardous machinery or working at unprotected heights.” She can perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions. She can do work that needs little or no judgment and can perform simple duties that can be learned on the job in less than 30 days. She can respond appropriately to supervision, but should not be required to work in close coordination with coworkers where teamwork is required. She can deal with occasional changes in the work environment. She can have only occasional exposure to or interaction with the general public.
Step four: Ms. Lynch cannot perform her past work.
Step five: There are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Lynch can perform.


         A. Medical opinions

         Ms. Lynch contends ALJ misevaluated: (1) the June 2016 hearing testimony of medical expert John Clark, M.D.; (2) the October 2014 DSHS form opinion completed by examining psychologist Michael Jenkins, Ph.D.; (3) the September 2015 evaluation report written by examining psychologist Linda Jansen, Ph.D.; (4) the report written by consultative examining psychiatrist David Sandvik, M.D., (5) the State agency psychological opinions; and (6) the opinions of Anya Zimberoff, Psy.D., Brenda Hanellan, Ph.D., Mark Magdaleno, M.D., Marlon Balauag's M.D, Brian Snitily, M.D., and Alice Burden, PA-C..

         1. Dr. Clark

         Dr. Clark testified Ms. Lynch has a “neurological emotional stress component to her vomiting, ” Tr. 908; “stress” was an “aggravating factor, ” Tr. 915; Ms. Lynch's vomiting episodes would “probably” interfere with her ability to work; Ms. Lynch “probably needs to work “where she could go to the restroom, ” Tr. 914; her condition was “problematic”; and that because there was a “large psychiatric element” to Ms. Lynch's vomiting, “he would like to defer to the psychiatric evaluation.” Tr. 916.

         Ms. Lynch argues the ALJ erroneously rejected Dr. Clark's opinion that she is limited to work “unassociated with stress, ” will have attendance problems, and needs a job where she can go to the restroom. Dkt. 13 at 5. The Commissioner argues since Dr. Clark stated he would defer to the psychiatric evaluation, he “declined to render an opinion” regarding Ms. Lynch's work attendance problems. Dkt. 14 at 4. The argument fails. The ALJ did not mention or discuss this limitation. Because the ALJ did not find Dr. Clark declined to render an opinion about attendance problems, the Commissioner's argument is an improper post-hoc rationalization upon which the Court cannot rely to affirm the ALJ. See Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 847-48 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court reviews the ALJ's decision “based on the reasoning and findings offered by the ALJ-not post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of SSA, 554 F.3d 1219, 1225 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The Commissioner also argues the ALJ “limited Plaintiff's workplace in a manner designed to reduce her stress level, thereby alleviating any concerns regarding attendance present in Dr. Clark's opinion.” Id. This argument is based on the ALJ's observation that Dr. Clark opined Ms. Lynch would need a job unassociated with stress and the ALJ's finding that “this is not inconsistent with a capacity for no more than simple work requiring little to no judgment, no teamwork, no more than occasional changes in the work environment, and no more than occasional exposure with the general public.” Tr. 878.

         The ALJ's finding, however, is not supported by substantial evidence of record. No witness, including the vocational expert, stated the work described above by the ALJ would accommodate Ms. Lynch's stress limitations. The ALJ thus erred because his finding appears to be based upon nothing more the ALJ's own research and views, rather than competent evidence of record. See e.g. Yang v. Apfel, No C99591, 2000 WL 342669 at * 4 (N.D. Cal. March 22, 2000) (“ALJ improperly discredited plaintiff's credibility because he based his reasoning on his personal views and not on the evidence in the case record.”); Van Dine v. Astrue, No. 10-00712, 2012 WL 1069985 at * 43 (OR, Feb. 27, 2012) (“The ALJ offers no support for this conclusion, which appears to be based on his own personal views. There is no reference to a treating doctor or any doctor's opinion to support this conclusion.”).

         And finally the Commissioner argues the ALJ's failure to discuss Dr. Clark's testimony that Ms. Lynch needs a job where she can go to the restroom is harmless because the doctor's testimony “does not suggest that Plaintiff requires access to a restroom beyond what would be present in a normal work environment.” Dkt. 14 at 5. The Court rejects the argument for two reasons. First, the ALJ's failure to discuss Ms. Lynch's need for a restroom is an omission that cannot be cured by the post hoc argument the Commissioner makes. As noted above, the Court reviews the ALJ's decision based on the reasoning and findings offered by the ALJ-not post hoc rationalizations. And second, the Commissioner's interpretation of the doctor's opinion is unreasonable. Virtually all workplaces have restroom facilities. Dr. Clark would not have stated Ms. Lynch needs a restroom if the restroom facilities typically available at a workplaces were sufficient. If the typical facilities were sufficient, the doctor would have had no reason to mention Ms. Lynch needed access to a restroom. The only reasonable interpretation of Dr. Clark's statement is that the doctor believed Ms. Lynch's vomiting problem limits her to work that can be performed in close proximity to a restroom. The ALJ did not account for this limitation in the RFC determination or ask the vocational expert about this limitation and accordingly erred.

         2.Dr. ...

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