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Jedidi-Standley v. Berryhill

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

September 20, 2017

ANNE JEDIDI-STANDLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Anne Jedidi-Standley[1] filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 5.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for giving limited weight to the medical opinions of Drs. Mary Lemberg, M.D., and Dana Harmon, Ph.D. Had the ALJ properly considered the opinions of these two doctors, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On June 18, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of April 15, 2010. See Dkt. 7, Administrative Record (“AR”) 147. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and reconsideration. See AR 147. Plaintiff has had three ALJ hearings. The first hearing was held before ALJ Rebekah Ross on May 16, 2012. AR 40-85. In a decision dated September 14, 2012, ALJ Ross determined Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 144-62. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was granted by the Appeals Council, which vacated ALJ Ross's hearing decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim to the ALJ. AR 168-71.

         Plaintiff received a second hearing before ALJ Ross on April 23, 2014. See AR 86-113. On May 12, 2014, the ALJ granted a partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff disabled as of July 1, 2013, her 50th birthday. AR 7-30. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1276-78; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, which remanded the case for further proceedings. See AR 1289-1300; Jedidi v. Colvin, 2016 WL 1470201 (W.D. Wash. April 15, 2016).

         Plaintiff received a third hearing before ALJ S. Andrew Grace on September 13, 2016. AR 1207-23. In a decision dated January 13, 2017, ALJ Grace found Plaintiff disabled as of July 1, 2013. AR 1174-98. Plaintiff did not file written exceptions with the Appeals Council, making the September 13, 2016 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. Plaintiff now appeals ALJ Grace's January 13, 2017 decision.[2]

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to provide specific and legitimate reasons, supported by substantial evidence, to reject the medical opinions of: (1) Dr. Mary Lemberg, M.D.; and (2) Dr. Dana Harmon. Dkt. 9, p. 3.

         Because the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled as of July 1, 2013, the relevant time period for this case is the alleged onset date - April 15, 2010 - through the date prior to the finding of disability - June 30, 2013. Id.

         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 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the opinion evidence from examining physicians Drs. Lemberg and Harmon. Dkt. 9, pp. 3-10.

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990); Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988)). When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, the opinion can be rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995); Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). 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 v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         A. Dr. Lemberg

         Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred when he failed to include in the RFC all limitations assessed by examining physician Dr. Lemberg. Dkt. 9, pp. 3-8, 11.

         Dr. Lemberg conducted a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff on December 2, 2010. AR 596-603. After her examination, Dr. Lemberg ascertained the following:

The claimant does have the ability to perform simple and repetitive tasks, and would not have difficulty completing detailed and complex tasks, based upon her performance on the mental status exam. The claimant would find it difficult to adapt to new environments based on our interview today and mental status exam. The claimant demonstrated impairments today with short-term memory and calculation. The claimant would not have difficulty accepting instructions from supervisors, but would have some difficulty interacting with co-workers and the public. The claimant can attend work on a consistent basis, though would be limited in the tasks she could do from psychiatric and physical reasons. The claimant could not complete a normal workday or workweek without problematic interruption from her psychiatric conditions. The degree of her tearfulness and perseveration would be barriers to employment and is impacting her daily functioning. I anticipate the claimant to have significant difficulty dealing with the usual stress encountered in a competitive work environment.

AR 601-02.

         The ALJ gave significant weight to Dr. Lemberg's determinations that Plaintiff could perform simple and repetitive tasks, work consistently, and accept instructions from supervisors. AR 1192. He also gave significant weight to Dr. Lemberg's finding that Plaintiff would have problems interacting with coworkers and the public. AR 1192. However, the ALJ gave little weight to various other parts of Dr. Lemberg's assessment, which Plaintiff challenges. See AR 1192-93; Dkt. 9, pp. 3-8.

         The ALJ provided five points for discrediting Dr. Lemberg's opinion. First, the ALJ stated:

Little weight is given to the assessment that the claimant would have difficulty adapting to new environments, that she would be limited in completing tasks due to psychiatric and physical reasons, that she would be unable to complete a normal workday or workweek without interruptions from her psychiatric conditions and that tearfulness and preservation as well as stress would limit the claimant's ability to perform work activities. These findings are subjective and based mostly on the claimant's ...

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