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Warren v. Berryhill

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

August 8, 2017

TAMMY WARREN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS DKT. #3

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Warren's Complaint [Dkt. 3] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits.

         Warren suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anxiety, affective disorder, and substance addiction. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record 15. She applied for disability insurance and SSI benefits in November 2013, alleging she became disabled in June 2010. See AR 13. Those applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Kelly Wilson in June 2015. See id. Warren, represented by a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 39-87.

         The ALJ determined Warren not to be disabled. See AR 10-38. The Appeals Council denied Warren's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 1-7; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. In January 2017, Warren filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. See Dkt. 3.

         Warren argues the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings because the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the record, Warren's testimony, and the lay witness testimony, and therefore in finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process that Warren could perform work available in the national economy.

         The Commissioner argues the ALJ did not err in evaluating the medical evidence, Warren's testimony, or the lay witness testimony, so the ALJ's finding that Warren was not disabled was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         I. DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner applied the “proper legal standards” and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. See Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) (“A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.”) (citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 (“[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”). “The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine” whether the Commissioner's decision is “supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (“Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.”) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[1]

         A. The Medical Evidence in the Record.

         The ALJ determines credibility and resolves ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount” the opinions of medical experts “falls within this responsibility.” Id. at 603.

         In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Even when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, that opinion “can only be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31. In general, more weight is given to a treating or examining physician's opinion than to the opinions of those who do not examine the claimant. See Id. at 830.

         Warren argues the ALJ erred by failing to give a specific and legitimate reason supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinion of evaluating psychologist ...


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