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Gill v. Berryhill

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

June 6, 2017

ANDY WALTER GILL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Defendant.

          AMENDED ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER AND DISMISSING THE CASE

          BRIAN A. TSUCHIDA United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Court issues this Amended Order to address deficiencies contained in its Order dated June 5, 2017, Dkt. 15. As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.

         INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

         Andy Walter Gill seeks review of the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. He contends the ALJ erred by rejecting the medical opinion of Mary Lemberg, M.D. Dkt. 12.

         Mr. Gill is currently 33 years old, has at least a high school education, and has worked as an electrician; inspector, quality assurance; and help desk representative. Tr. 26, 27, 38. On November 5, 2015, he applied for benefits, alleging disability as of August 6, 2015. Tr. 13. His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. The ALJ conducted a hearing on August 4, 2016, at which time the alleged onset date of disability was amended to January 1, 2015. Id. The ALJ ultimately found Mr. Gill not disabled. Tr. 28.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [2] the ALJ found Mr. Gill met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2020; had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 6, 2015; and he had severe impairments of sleep apnea, shoulder abnormalities, degenerative disc disease, cervical myalgia, bilateral foot abnormalities, knee arthritis, compartment syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, persistent depressive disorder, panic disorder, rule out mild neurocognitive disorder, rule out learning disorder, and rule out attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tr. 15. The ALJ found Mr. Gill has the RFC to perform medium work that does not require more than frequent balancing, stooping kneeling, crouching, crawling, or climbing; that does not require more than occasional overhead reaching or working; and that is low stress, meaning it consists of simple, routine tasks, and it does not require more than occasional interaction with the general public or coworkers. Tr. 18. The ALJ further found Mr. Gill could not perform any past relevant work but that he could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 26-27. As the Appeals Council denied Mr. Gill's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1-6.

         DISCUSSION

         Mr. Gill contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of examining doctor Mary Lemberg. Dr. Lemberg completed a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation on March 14, 2016. Tr. 973-79. The doctor found Mr. Gill could

perform simple tasks, though he would likely continue to struggle with more complex tasks due to a combination of his anxiety, depression, and cognitive limitations. He would have occasional difficulty adapting to new environments. . . He would have difficulty comprehending and recalling instructions from others . . . He would struggle to perform work activities on a consistent basis due to his psychiatric conditions. I anticipate he would have moderate difficulty dealing with the usual stress encountered in a work environment. . . He might be more capable of more simple tasks that do not worsen his underlying anxiety and cognitions, though he would greatly struggle to handle the stressors accompanying more complex tasks given the mix of cognitive limitations, anxiety and depression.

Tr. 978-79. The ALJ assigned the opinions “some weight” and “accepted” the doctor's opinion that Mr. Gill would struggle to perform work activities on a consistent basis. Tr. 25. Nevertheless, the ALJ noted that opinion did not “delineate the degree of struggle, ” before observing the doctor “did discuss increased struggle with more complex tasks, with greater instruction, and with greater social interaction, ” and concluding “[t]his is consistent that [sic] the claimant could persist at less demanding tasks and the claimant is limited from such complexity, need for instruction, and interaction.” Tr. 25.

         A. Work Activities on a Consistent Basis

         The parties' arguments highlight their differing interpretations of both Dr. Lemberg's opinion, and the ALJ's decision regarding that opinion. At base, the parties dispute whether Dr. Lemberg opined Mr. Gill would struggle to perform all, or only complex work activities on a consistent basis. The Court finds the ALJ did not err in concluding Dr. Lemberg opined that Mr. Gill could not perform complex work activities on a consistent basis.

         Mr. Gill contends the ALJ expressly stated he accepted the doctor's opinion that he would struggle to perform work activities on a consistent basis, but failed to fashion a RFC assessment incorporating that limitation. Dkts. 12 at 3, 14 at 2. He therefore concludes the ALJ failed to provide “specific and legitimate” reasons for rejecting the opinion as required by Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Dkt. 12 at 2. The Commissioner contends the ALJ incorporated the doctor's assessment in limiting him to simple tasks after resolving an ambiguity within the doctor's opinion. Dkt. 13 at 3-4. The Court agrees with the Commissioner that this is what the ALJ did. The ALJ's discussion clearly signals he found the opinion ambiguous, and this is why he assigned it only “some weight.”[3] The ALJ recognized Dr. Lemberg discussed performing both simple and complex tasks, but when she stated Mr. Gill would “struggle to perform work activities on a consistent basis, ” that statement lacked detail. Tr. 25 (finding the statement “does not delineate the degree of struggle”). The ALJ then resolved the ambiguity by noting the following: 1) Dr. Lemberg discussed “increased struggle” in connection with more complex tasks; and 2) a finding that Mr. Gill would struggle to perform more complex work activities on a consistent basis would be consistent with the doctor's finding Mr. Gill could carry out less demanding tasks. Tr. 25. In short, the ALJ reasoned that the doctor's opinion Mr. Gill would “struggle to perform work activities on a consistent basis” was applicable only to work requiring performance of complex tasks. The inquiry is thus whether the ALJ's interpretation of the doctor's opinion was erroneous.

         Mr. Gill contends that because Dr. Lemberg opined he would “greatly” struggle with complex tasks, [4] her statement that he would merely “struggle” (i.e., rather than “greatly” struggle) to “perform work activities on a consistent basis” shows the doctor intended that the limitation apply to work activities that are also less than complex. Dkt. 12 at 4. But Mr. Gill's deductive reasoning is flawed because it fails to consider a fact that would support the opposite conclusion: Dr. Lemberg also found Mr. Gill could “perform simple tasks, though he would likely continue to struggle with more ...


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