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Heck v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

August 3, 2017

BRENDA J. HECK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

          J. Richard Creatura United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13 (see also Notice of Initial Assignment to a U.S. Magistrate Judge and Consent Form, Dkt. 3; Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate Judge, Dkt. 4). This matter has been fully briefed. See Dkt. 12, 13, 14.

         Plaintiff was in a motorcycle accident in 2008. Despite suffering from various impairments and symptoms as a result of this accident, plaintiff nevertheless was able to maintain full time gainful employment from 2008 through mid-2013. However, plaintiff alleges that her conditions worsened over time, in part based on an additional subsequent motor vehicle accident. The ALJ relied heavily on a finding that the objective evidence did not demonstrate any worsening in plaintiff's limitations. However, when making this finding, the ALJ failed to acknowledge significant probative evidence of a 2013 opinion from a treating physician regarding plaintiff's specific work-related limitations.

         Defendant concedes that the ALJ erred by failing to discuss this significant probative evidence, but contends that the error is harmless. Although defendant offers an alternative rationale that the ALJ could have relied on when failing to credit fully this 2013 opinion from the treating physician, the Court is obliged to consider only the actual findings offered by the ALJ. Furthermore, contrary to defendant's argument, the 2013 opinion is not “virtually identical” to the subsequent 2014 opinion addressed by the ALJ. Even if the ALJ would have relied on her findings related to the 2014 opinion, such reliance would not be based on substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         Therefore, the Court concludes that this matter must be reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner for further administrative proceedings consistent with this order.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, BRENDA J. HECK, was born in 1963 and was 49 years old on the alleged date of disability onset of June 20, 2013. See AR. 251-58. Plaintiff has work experience as a secretary. AR. 54-57. Plaintiff's last employment ended when she was unable to perform her job duties. AR. 79.

         According to the ALJ, plaintiff has at least the severe impairments of “degenerative disk disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, left upper extremity arthropathy, migraine headaches, pain disorder with both psychological factors and medical conditions, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), affective disorder NOS and anxiety disorder NOS (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).” AR. 24.

         At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was living with her husband in their home. AR. 89-91.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423 (Title II) of the Social Security Act was denied initially and following reconsideration. See AR. 120, 134. Plaintiff's requested hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Laura Valente (“the ALJ”) on February 17, 2015. See AR. 47-119. On May 28, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act. See AR. 18-46.

         In plaintiff's Opening Brief, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Carolyn Marquardt, MD; (2) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Kristen Sherman, PhD; (3) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Martha Glisky, PhD, and fully developed the record as to her opinions; (4) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of H.L. Rappaport, MD; (5) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the observations of Asako Konoike, Darlene Jacintho, and Michael Nahum; (6) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated plaintiff's ability to perform past work; and (7) Whether the ALJ properly assessed plaintiff's credibility. See Dkt. 12, p. 1.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits 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 ...


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