United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
SHELLY J. MINNICK, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR
A. TSUCHIDA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
Medical and Other Source Evidence
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.
Ms. Durham, Ms. Hale, and Dr. Havellana
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...