United States District Court, E.D. Washington
ROXANN L. BENTHAGEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION
VAN SICKLE Senior United States District Judge.
MATTER comes before the Court based upon cross motions for
summary judgment. At issue is the validity of a decision
denying Roxann L. Benthagen's claim for supplemental
security income. Ms. Benthagen is represented by Dana C.
Madsen; the Acting Commissioner by L. Jamala Edwards.
Lee Benthagen was born on January 25, 1969. (TR 78.) On
February 8, 2010, she applied for Title XVI supplemental
security income. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The
Social Security Administration denied her initial application
and her request for reconsideration, whereupon she exercised
her right to a hearing before an administrative law judge. On
March 24, 2011, the ALJ found Ms. Benthagen suffers from a
number of severe impairments (TR 19) and she is unable to
perform her past relevant work. (TR 27.) However, he also
found she is able to perform jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy. Id. Thus, he ruled
she is not disabled. (TR 28.)
Benthagen asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's
unfavorable decision, and when the Appeals Council declined
to do so, she challenged the decision in United States
District Court. Benthagen v. Colvin, CV-12-420-JPH.
The attorney for the Social Security Administration declined
to defend the ALJ's unfavorable ruling. Instead, the
SSA's attorney joined Ms. Benthagen in asking Magistrate
Judge James P. Hutton to reverse the ALJ's unfavorable
decision and remand the matter for further proceedings. The
parties' stipulated request for remand resulted in a
second administrative hearing.
second hearing began on November 19, 2014. Both a consulting
psychologist and Ms. Benthagen testified. (TR 422-30,
430-46.) At the conclusion of their testimony, the ALJ
continued the hearing in order to obtain testimony from a
vocational expert. (TR 446-47.) The hearing resumed on
February 10, 2015. Ms. Benthagen supplemented her prior
testimony, and a vocational expert testified. (TR 452-56,
456-62.) On March 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a written analysis
of her allegations. At Step Two in the SSA's sequential
evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ
found she suffers from a number of severe impairments,
viz., major depressive disorder, post-traumatic
stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, personality
disorder with dependent features, and a history of alcohol
abuse. (TR 398.) As before, he found she is unable to perform
any past relevant work. (TR 409.) The issue, then, is whether
she is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers
in the national economy. (TR 410.) As before, the ALJ decided
such jobs exist and she “is capable of making a
successful adjustment to other work.” (TR 411.)
Benthagen disagrees with the ALJ's determinations.
Consequently, she asked the Appeals Council to review the
ALJ's new ruling. On August 18, 2015, the Council
declined to do so. With that, the ALJ's 2015 ruling
became the final decision of the Social Security
Administration. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(b)(2). Ms.
Benthagen commenced this action on October 1, 2015.
district court may enter “judgment affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, review is
limited. “The findings of the Commissioner of Social
Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial
evidence, shall be conclusive[.]” Id. As a
result, the Commissioner's decision “will be
disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence
or it is based on legal error.” Green v.
Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 529 (9th Cir.1986).
“Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla,
. . . but less than a preponderance.” Desrosiers v.
Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573,
576 (9th Cir.1988) (internal punctuation and citations
the years, Ms. Benthagen has been examined by mental health
professionals on a number of occasions. All of them agree her
ability to perform normal, day-to-day work is impaired by her
psychological problems: Amy Robinson, M.S. (October 23, 2007)
(“[Ms. Benthagen] will have a difficult time
interacting with other people”; “[s]he may have .
. . difficulties with complex instructions” (TR 276-79;
280-85)). Abigail Osborne-Elmer, M.S. (September 17, 2008)
(“Ms. Benthagen's severe anxiety and depression
will interfere with her ability to initiate and maintain
regular employment” (TR 292-95)). W. Scott Mabee, Ph.D.
(hereinafter Dr. Mabee) (November 5, 2009) (“[Ms.
Benthagen] is able to perform simple, repetitive
tasks”; “she can sustain concentration for short
periods of time” (TR 194-99)). John Arnold, Ph.D.
(hereinafter Dr. Arnold) (October 5, 2010) (Ms. Benthagen
“becomes highly anxious when required to leave her
home. This will interfere with her ability to arrive for work
and perform on a consistent basis.” (TR 307-10)). Dr.
Arnold (September 2, 2011) (Ms. Benthagen's
“symptoms have shown little change over the course of
her evaluation at this office” (TR 570-74)). Dr. Mabee
(July 31, 2012) (Ms. Benthagen experiences marked limitations
with respect to her ability to “[c]ommunicate and
perform effectively in a work setting, ” to
“[c]omplete a normal work day, ” and to
“[m]aintain appropriate behavior in a work
setting” (TR 578-84)). Kayleen Islam-Zwart, Ph.D.
(hereinafter Dr. Islam-Zwart) (October 13, 2014) (“[Ms.
Benthagen] is unable to work at this time and her prognosis
for the future is guarded” (TR 640-47)).
considered the psychological assessments that are listed
above, but he decided they are unduly pessimistic. The ALJ
provided a number of reasons for discounting the above-listed
assessments. Broadly speaking, his criticisms can be grouped
into five categories. In his opinion, (1) the assessments are
not supported by objective data, but instead, rely heavily
upon Ms. Benthagen's subjective complaints, (2) by and
large, the results of her mental status exams were
unremarkable, (3) some of the assessments were based upon a
single examination, (4) Ms. Benthagen advised health care
providers her medications effectively controlled her
symptoms, and (5) two consulting experts think she is much
more capable than the disputed psychological assessments
Benthagen is sharply critical of the ALJ's analysis of
the psychological assessments. Take, for example, the
ALJ's assertion that the assessments are not supported by
adequate, objective data. Ms. Benthagen insists the record is
otherwise. She notes Drs. Mabee and Arnold examined her on
two occasions each. And while, yes, they asked questions in
order to assess her condition, they did not rely exclusively
upon her answers. They also administered psychological tests.
So, too, Dr. Islam-Zwart. Admittedly, the latter performed
only one examination of Ms. Benthagen. Nevertheless, her
conclusion is consistent with those of Dr. Mabee and Arnold.
As a result, this is a case in which three psychologists, who
performed examinations over a period of five years, agree Ms.
Benthagen's ability to work is substantially impaired.
Benthagen acknowledges the severity of her symptoms can be
reduced by medication. However, as she correctly notes, this
is a circumstance the psychologists considered in completing
their respective assessments. Dr. Mabee (“Appropriate
medication management can alleviate the severity of her
anxiety and depression.” (TR 198)); Dr. Islam-Zwart
(“She describes some benefit from the use of
medication, but should continue to work with her medical
provider to determine an appropriate medication
regimen.” (TR 647)). Despite the ...