United States District Court, W.D. Washington
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER
A. TSUCHIDA United States Magistrate Judge
Wolfsbruder seeks review of the denial of his Supplemental
Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits
applications. He contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the
medical evidence and the lay witness testimony. Dkt. 17. The
Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final
decision and REMANDS the matter for further
administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
Wolfsbruder is currently 44 years old, has a high school
education and has worked as a systems analyst. Tr. 41, 67,
202. In August 2013, he applied for benefits, alleging
disability as of November 1, 2009; he later amended his
alleged onset date to February 14, 2012. Tr. 38, 202, 209.
After his applications were denied, the ALJ conducted a
hearing and, on July 31, 2015, issued a decision finding Mr.
Wolfsbruder not disabled. Tr. 19-31. The Appeals Council
denied Mr. Wolfsbruder's request for review, making the
ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr.
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found
that Mr. Wolfsbruder had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date; he had the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, sleep
disorder, obesity, migraines, affective disorder, anxiety
disorder, and somatoform disorder; and that these impairments
did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed
impairment. Tr. 21-22. The ALJ found that Mr.
Wolfsbruder had the residual functional capacity to perform
light work with some exceptions; he is able to understand,
remember, and carry out instructions and tasks generally
required by occupations with a Specific Vocational
Preparation (SVP) of one or two; he can have occasional
superficial interaction with the general public and is able
to make adjustment to workplace changes generally associated
with occupations with an SVP of one or two. Tr. 24. The ALJ
found that Mr. Wolfsbruder was unable to perform his past
work, but, as there were jobs that exist in significant
numbers in the national economy that he can perform, he is
not disabled. Tr. 29-31.
Wolfsbruder argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the
medical evidence by crediting the non-examining
psychologists' opinions over the treating and examining
source opinions, without providing specific and legitimate
reason for rejecting the treating and examining doctors'
opinions. Dkt. 17 at 3. In general, more weight
should be given to the opinion of a treating physician than
to a non-treating physician, and more weight to the opinion
of an examining physician than to a non-examining physician.
Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996).
The ALJ must give specific and legitimate reasons for
rejecting a treating or examining doctor's opinion that
is contradicted by another doctor, and clear and convincing
reasons for rejecting a treating or examining doctor's
uncontradicted opinion. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31.
Widlan, Ph.D., examined Mr. Wolfsbruder in February 2012 and
opined that Mr. Wolfsbruder had marked impairments in the
ability to perform routine tasks without supervision, be
aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions,
communicate and perform effectively in a work setting with
even limited public contact, and maintain appropriate
behavior in a work setting. Tr. 324. Dr. Widlan assigned a
Global Assessment of Functioning score of 40, indicating some
impairment in reality testing or communication or major
impairment in several areas, such as work or school, family
relations, judgment, thinking, or mood. Tr. 323; Am.
Psychiatric Ass'n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), 34 (4th ed. text rev. 1994).
gave Dr. Widlan's opinion little weight because Dr.
Widlan did not have access to treatment notes and relied on
Mr. Wolfsbruder's presentation during their one-time
interview. Tr. 29. An ALJ may give less weight to a medical
opinion that is based to a large extent on a claimant's
self-reports that have been properly discounted as
incredible. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035,
1041 (9th Cir. 2008). But an ALJ does not provide adequate
reasons for rejecting an examining physician's opinion by
questioning the credibility of the patient's complaints
where the doctor does not discredit those complaints and
supports his ultimate opinion with his own observations.
Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir.
2001). Dr. Widlan conducted a clinical interview and
administered a mental status examination. He did not merely
repeat Mr. Wolfsbruder's subjective statements. Rather,
he relied on his clinical assessment to opine on Mr.
Wolfsbruder's limitations. And Dr. Widlan did not
discredit Mr. Wolfsbruder's complaints, noting instead
that Mr. Wolfsbruder scored in the non-malingering range on
the Rey test for malingering. Tr. 324. This was not a valid
reason to reject Dr. Widlan's opinion.
also found that Dr. Widlan's opinion was
“inconsistent with the normal observations of the
claimant, his activities, and his performance on mental
status examinations.” Tr. 29. This boilerplate
language, which the ALJ used to reject all the treating and
examining doctors' opinions, is general, nonspecific, and
does not rise to the level required to reject a treating or
examining doctor. See Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418,
421-22 (9th Cir. 1988) (“To say that medical opinions
are not supported by sufficient objective findings . . . does
not achieve the level of specificity our prior cases have
required, even when the objective factors are listed
seriatim.”). The ALJ's repeated use of this
boilerplate phrase is particularly troubling where the ALJ
rejected all the treating and examining doctors' opinions
and relied solely on the non-examining doctors' opinions.
This rote language does not suffice to reject an examining
the ALJ failed to provide a legally sufficient reason to
reject Dr. Widlan's opinion, the ALJ erred in rejecting
the opinion. The Court concludes that this error was
prejudicial to Mr. Wolfsbruder and was therefore ...