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Minnick v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Shelly J. Minnick appeals the ALJ's decision finding her not disabled. She argues the ALJ misevaluated the medical evidence, her testimony and the lay testimony. As relief she requests the Court remand the case for further administrative proceedings. Dkt. 13 at 2, 19. For the reasons below the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the case for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         A. Medical and Other Source Evidence

         Ms. Minnick contends the ALJ misevaluated the opinions of Sarah J. Durham, LMHC/MHP; Mayang Hale, M.A., MHP; Brenda Havellana, Ph.D.; Richard Peterson, Ph.D.; Thomas Clifford, Ph.D.; Sunil Kakar, Psy.D.;Rhonda Bahr, MSW; Williams Wilkinson, Ed.D.; and Heidi Shors, M.D. Dkt. 13 at 3-10.

         1. Ms. Durham, Ms. Hale, and Dr. Havellana

         These sources rendered opinions between December 2009 and January 2011. The ALJ's treatment of the opinions is inconsistent. On the one hand, the ALJ rejected Ms. Durham's December 2009 opinion, and Ms. Hale's November 2010 opinion on the grounds they “are not acceptable medical sources, and their opinions predate the period at issue by more than 12 months.” Tr. 26. On the other, the ALJ gave significant weight to Dr. Havellana's opinions, which also predate the period at issue, accepting the doctor's report that Ms. Minick is dishonest about her alcohol use; malingers; and can understand and follow simple instructions. Tr. 26.

         As to Ms. Durham and Ms. Hale, the ALJ gave invalid reasons to reject their opinions. The opinions and evidence from other sources, such as mental health professionals, are important and must be evaluated by the ALJ. See Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1013-14 (9th Cir. 2014) (ALJ erred by failing to recognize “other source that can provide evidence about the severity of a claimant's impairments and how it affects the claimant's ability to work”). The ALJ therefore committed legal error by rejecting the opinions simply because Ms. Durham and Ms. Hale are not “acceptable medical sources, ” i.e., medical doctors. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a) (1) and (3).

         The ALJ also erred by rejecting the opinions on the grounds they predate “the period at issue.” Ms. Durham applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in February 2012, alleging disability beginning March 31, 2010. Tr. 13. Under 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.330(a); 416.355, the earliest month an SSI applicant can receive benefits is the month following the month the SSI application is filed. But while the regulations set the earliest date an applicant can receive benefits, they “say nothing about when a claimant's disability actually begins.” Owen v. Colvin, No.15-5933-KLS, 2016 WL 6080910 at *3 (W.WA Oct. 18, 2016). Here Ms. Minnick claimed she became disabled in 2010. Ms. Durham gave an opinion 3 months before the claimed onset date and Ms. Hale gave an opinion after the onset date. The opinions are relevant evidence about Ms. Minick's functional limitations because the ALJ did not find Ms. Minnick's functioning improved between the time the opinions were given, and the time she became eligible to receive benefits. Hence Ms. Minnick could have become disabled in 2010 and remained disabled when she appeared before the ALJ. Additionally, the ALJ gave Dr. Havellana's pre-application opinions great weight, a determination illustrating how the opinions' dates, alone, are not a basis to discredit them.

         Furthermore, virtually all disability claims substantially rely upon evidence predating the date the disability application is filed. This is because a claimant needs evidence of disability to apply for benefits, and that evidence necessarily involves records, statements, and opinions that predate the application. The ALJ may assess what weight the evidence is given and discount it in the appropriate case. For example, the ALJ may reject medical opinions due to improvements to the claimant's physical or mental condition between the time the opinion was rendered and the relevant time at issue. But the ALJ, here, neither weighed Ms. Durham's and Ms. Hale's opinions, with any particularity, nor determined Ms. Minnick's condition improved since the opinions were rendered. The ALJ accordingly erred in rejecting Ms. Durham's and Ms. Hale's opinions simply because they were rendered before the date she was entitled to first receive SSI benefits.

         Turning to Dr. Havellana, Ms. Minnick argues the ALJ erred because the doctor's opinions “proves little about Minnick's functional abilities since February 2012.” Dkt. 13 at 5. The Court may reverse only when the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard. Stone v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 530, 531 (9th Cir. 1985). Ms. Minnick bears the burden of showing the ALJ harmfully erred. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, (9th Cir. 2012). She fails to meet this burden because her opening brief provides no explanation as to how or why the ALJ erred. She instead makes a conclusory statement without making any attempt to show the ALJ committed a harmful error of fact or law. Additionally, Ms. Minnick's argument contradicts her claim the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions Ms. Durham and Ms. Hale. Ms. Durham and Ms. Hale gave opinions in 2009 and 2010. Ms. Minnick argues their opinions support her claim, an argument premised on the continuing viability of their opinions. The Court rejects the notion that Ms. Durham's and Ms. Hale's opinions have continuing viability but Dr. Havellana's does not. The Court accordingly affirms the ALJ's assessment of Dr. Havellana's opinions.

         2. Dr. Peterson

         The ALJ rejected Dr. Peterson's opinion that Ms. Minnick has moderate mental restrictions and marked limitations in her ability to be aware of hazards and to take precautions. Tr. 26. The ALJ rejected Dr. Peterson's opinions for several reasons, at least one of which is valid. The ALJ found the doctor's opinion is contrary to Ms. Minnick's treatment records which “regularly revealed normal mental status during appointments.” Tr. 26. Ms. Minnick claims the doctor's opinions are not “meaningfully inconsistent” with her records. This is nothing more than a conclusory statements that the ALJ's reasoning is invalid, and thus fails to establish the ALJ harmfully erred. The Court has reviewed the record and concludes it was not unreasonable for the ALJ to find Dr. Peterson's opinion is at odds with Ms. Minnick's treatment history.

         The ALJ also found Ms. Minnick's ability to travel alone to another state and her ability to care for an ailing father are inconsistent with the doctor's opinion. Ms. Minnick again fails to explain in her opening brief why this is an unreasonable interpretation of the record and instead repeats her claim that the doctor's opinion is not “meaningfully inconsistent” with her activities. It is not unreasonable for the ALJ to conclude that being able to travel alone interstate and care for an ailing person is inconsistent with a person who is markedly limited in her ability to be aware of hazards and to take precautions. In any event, Ms. Minnick fails to provide any explanation as to why the ALJ's rationale ...

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