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Benthagen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 2, 2017

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


          FRED VAN SICKLE Senior United States District Judge.

         THIS 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.


         Roxann 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.)

         Ms. 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.

         The 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.)

         Ms. 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.


         A 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 omitted).


         Over 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)).

         The ALJ 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 indicate.

         Ms. 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.

         Ms. 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 ...

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