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Proctor v. Berryhill

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

April 18, 2017

SALLIE J. PROCTOR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 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 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 October 22, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that she became disabled beginning August 27, 2007. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 669. 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. AR 20-42.

         In a written decision dated February 16, 2010, the ALJ found plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 10-19. Following denial of her request for review of that decision, plaintiff filed an appeal with this Court, which on December 19, 2011, reversed and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. AR 346-67.

         On remand, a hearing was held before a different ALJ, at which plaintiff appeared and testified, as did a medical expert and a lay witness. AR 225-91. Plaintiff also appeared and testified at a supplemental hearing, as did the same lay witness and a different medical expert. AR 292-344. In a written decision dated March 28, 2013, the ALJ found plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 669. However, this Court again remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings on August 19, 2014, following denial of the request for review by the Appeals Council and plaintiff's appeal. AR 703-31.

         At a third hearing held before a third ALJ, plaintiff appeared and testified as did a vocational expert. AR 732-60. In a written decision dated February 26, 2016, the ALJ found that prior to December 17, 2013, plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that she was not disabled prior thereto. AR 685-86. The ALJ further found, however, that as of December 17, 2013, plaintiff was unable to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that she was disabled as of that date. AR 686-87.

         It appears that the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction of the matter, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision, which plaintiff appealed in a complaint filed with this Court on June 30, 2016. Dkt. 3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff seeks reversal of that 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 Rebecca Hendryx, M.D., Marie Ho, M.D., Joseph Elias, M.D., and Anne Winkler, M.D.;
(2) in discounting plaintiff's credibility;
(3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record;
(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 opinion evidence from Dr. Ho and Dr. Winkler, and therefore in assessing plaintiff's RFC and in finding she could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, the Court finds remand for further administrative proceedings, rather than an outright 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 ...


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