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Bartlett v. Berryhill

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

June 7, 2017

TRICIA A.K. BARTLETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the denial of Plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13. See also Consent to Proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge, Dkt. 17.

         After reviewing the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence. Therefore, the Court orders the Commissioner's final decision be vacated in its entirety and this matter remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for a de novo hearing.

         PROCEDURAL & FACTUAL HISTORY

         On April 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) 324-25.[1] Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on September 8, 2007, due to lower back nerve damage, plantar fasciitis, and adult attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. See AR 324, 339. Plaintiff's application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 138, 153. A hearing was held before an ALJ on August 8, 2012, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. See AR 46.

         On November 23, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. AR 183. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was granted by the Appeals Council, which vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. The ALJ conducted a second hearing, and on July 17, 2015, the ALJ again found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. AR 37. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's second decision was denied by the Appeals Council on June 13, 2016, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). See AR 1, 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On August 17, 2016, Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff argues the denial of benefits should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings, because the ALJ: 1) failed to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence; 2) erred by rejecting her subjective symptom testimony; 3) failed to properly evaluate the lay witness testimony; and 4) improperly found Plaintiff was capable of performing other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Dkt. 14, p. 2.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits only if the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and is such “‘relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 325-26 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated the Medical Opinion Evidence.

         A. Standard

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician or psychologist. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). However, “[i]n order to discount the opinion of an examining physician in favor of the opinion of a nonexamining medical advisor, the ALJ must set forth specific, legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Nguyen v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1462, 1466 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Lester, 81 F.3d at 831). The ALJ can accomplish this by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751). In addition, the ALJ must explain why the ALJ's own interpretations, rather than those of the doctors, are correct. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725 (citing Embrey, 849 F.2d at 421-22). The ALJ “may not reject ‘significant probative evidence' without explanation.” Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 570-71 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1395 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3d Cir. 1981))). The “ALJ's written decision must state reasons for disregarding [such] evidence.” Flores, 49 F.3d at 571.

         B. Application of Standard

         1. Dennis S. Mann, D.O.

         Dr. Mann was Plaintiff's primary care physician from July, 2007 through Plaintiff's date last insured, December 31, 2012. AR 690. Over the course of his treatment, Dr. Mann rendered several opinions as to limitations arising out of Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments:

• On September 16, 2008, Dr. Mann opined Plaintiff was “unable to perform any type of full-time gainful employment” due to her bilateral carpal-tunnel syndrome and an inability to sit for a period longer than 30 minutes. AR 510.
• On June 7, 2011, based on the fact Plaintiff “walks with a wide-based, unstable gait wearing CAM walkers on both feet, ” Dr. Mann recommended Plaintiff use a cane. AR 645.
• On August 13, 2012, Dr. Mann opined Plaintiff would be unable to walk, sit, and stand for prolonged periods, and this would preclude her from any type of gainful employment. AR 692.
• On March 25, 2013, Dr. Mann opined Plaintiff would be incapable of any form of gainful employment because of her inability to sit for prolonged periods, walk for even short periods, stand for short periods, climb or descend stairs, push, pull, lift, or carry. AR 701.
• On September 26, 2013, Dr. Mann also opined Plaintiff's psychological issues contribute to her inability to work. AR 699.

         The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Mann's opinions for several reasons. First, as to Dr. Mann's recommendation ...


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