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Larson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

June 16, 2017

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



         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. 5.

         After reviewing the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence. Therefore, the ALJ's decision is vacated, and this case is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.


         On August 20, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record (“AR”) 144-45. Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on June 30, 2012, due to recurrent patellar dislocations/subluxations, arthritis, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”). See AR 144, 168. Plaintiff's application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 61-83. A hearing was held before an ALJ on July 1, 2015, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. See AR 37.

         On October 18, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. AR 28. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on December 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 January 7, 2017, Plaintiff 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 improperly evaluated the opinions of two treating physicians, one examining physician, and two state agency medical consultants. Dkt. 9, p. 1.


         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)).


         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. Morgan Carlson, M.D.

         Dr. Carlson examined Plaintiff on May 4, 2014. AR 263. Dr. Carlson noted Plaintiff had a history of bilateral knee pain secondary to dislocating patella and chondromalacia, with positive MRI findings for chondromalacia. AR 263. Plaintiff experienced bilateral patella dislocations every few months, with increasing frequency and duration of symptoms as she aged. AR 263. On examination, Plaintiff demonstrated full range of motion and 5/5 strength in all upper and lower extremities, except for 4/5 hip flexion/knee extension bilaterally. AR 265. Plaintiff demonstrated tenderness to palpation in her medial and lateral joint lines, however Dr. Carlson was unable to conduct ...

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