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Adams v. Berryhill

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

September 1, 2017

CORYEL L. ADAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          AMENDED 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 Supplemental Security Income (“SSI) benefits. 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. 6.

         After reviewing the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinions of two examining psychologists, as well as by improperly discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Therefore, this matter is reversed and remanded, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for further proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL& FACTUAL HISTORY

         On October 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI. See Dkt. 11, Administrative Record (“AR”) 133-41. Plaintiff alleges he became disabled on March 1, 2012, due to posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), high blood pressure, and back and shoulder pain. See AR 133, 152. Plaintiff's application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 46, 60. A hearing was held before an ALJ on November 18, 2014, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. See AR 26.

         On January 29, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of Sections 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. AR 19. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 11, 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 June 15, 2016, 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 erred by: 1) improperly discounting the opinions of two examining psychologists; and 2) improperly discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony Dkt. 15 pp. 1-2.

         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. Victoria ...


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