United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S
DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge.
Evelyn Wright filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of
Plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income
(“SSI”) and 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.6.
considering the record, the Court concludes the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to
provide specific, legitimate reasons supported by substantial
evidence for discounting the opinions of Drs. Parker,
Fuentes, Hale, Bargreen, Mitchell, and Czysz. Had the ALJ
properly considered these six opinions, the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment may have
included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is
therefore harmful, 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.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
15, 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI,
alleging disability as of March 21, 2011. See Dkt.
9; Administrative Record (“AR”) 183. The
applications were denied on initial administrative review and
reconsideration. See AR 183. A hearing was held
before ALJ M. J. Adams on August 27, 2012. See AR
81-117. The ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 183-95.
Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision, and the
Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ on November 7,
2014. 202-04. A second hearing was held before the ALJ on
January 26, 2016. AR 35-80. In a decision dated August 18,
2016, the ALJ determined Plaintiff to be not disabled.
See AR 12-25. 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. AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, §
Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ
erred by: (1) failing to properly consider the medical
opinions of Drs. Parker, M.D., Fuentes, M.D., Hale, M.D.,
Bargreen, Ph.D, Mitchell, Ph.D, Czysz, Ph.D, and Eather,
Ph.D.; and (2) failing to provide clear and convincing
reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's statements about the
limiting effects of her condition. Dkt. 11, p. 1. Plaintiff
requests the Court remand this case for an immediate award of
benefits. Id. at pp. 17-18.
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
Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion
alleges the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical
opinions completed by Drs. Parker, M.D., Fuentes, M.D., Hale,
M.D., Bargreen, Ph.D, Mitchell, Ph.D, Czysz, Ph.D, and
Eather, Ph.D. See Dkt. 11, pp. 3-14.
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 Embrey v. Bowen, 849
F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan,
908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). 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)).
“may reject the opinion of a non-examining physician by
reference to specific evidence in the medical record.”
Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1244 (9th Cir.
1998) (citing Gomez v. Chater, 74 F.3d 967, 972 (9th
Cir. 1996)); Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1041). However, all
of the determinative findings by the ALJ must be supported by
substantial evidence. See Bayliss, 427 F.3d at 1214
n.1 (citing Tidwell, 161 F.3d at 601); see also
Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750 (“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
Dr. Bryn E. Parker, M.D.
alleges the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons
for rejecting the opinion of treating physician Dr. Parker.
See Dkt. 11, pp. 3-6. After examining Plaintiff four
times and reviewing her 2011-12 medical records, Dr. Parker
opined Plaintiff can occasionally lift 20 pounds, frequently
lift less than 10 pounds, stand and/or walk at least two
hours in an eight-hour day, sit about six hours in an
eight-hour day, and occasionally climb ramps, stairs,
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, crouch, kneel, crawl, and
stoop. AR 850-51. She found Plaintiff is limited in pushing
and/or pulling in her upper extremities, and limited to
occasional reaching in all directions and handling. AR
851-52. She also found Plaintiff should be limited in her
exposure to dust and hazards. AR 853.
discussed Dr. Parker's findings and then stated:
I give Dr. Parker's opinion little weight, as (1) she had
only treated the claimant for a short period at the time she
gave her opinion, and although she had discussed the
claimant's fibromyalgia with her. (sic) Dr. Parker noted
that she is not the treating physician for this condition,
and as such, has not directly tested the claimant's
physical endurance. (2) Additionally, Dr. Parker's push
or pull limitation is inconsistent with objective medical
evidence which shows that upon exam, the claimant had 5/5
strength in her upper extremities.
(internal citations omitted, numbering added).
the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Parker's opinion
because Dr. Parker had only treated Plaintiff for a short
period of time and did not treat Plaintiff's
fibromyalgia. AR 21. The ALJ, however, failed to adequately
explain why Dr. Parker's treating relationship warrants
rejecting the opinion. It is also unclear why Dr.
Parker's entire opinion should be accorded little weight
simply because Dr. Parker did not “directly test”
Plaintiff's physical endurance. See AR 21.
Further, Dr. Parker treated Plaintiff on four occasions over
a four month period, and is a treating physician.
See AR 849. While Dr. Parker did not directly treat
Plaintiff for fibromyalgia, she discussed how the condition
impacted Plaintiff's life at three of the four
appointments. AR 849; see also AR 21. The record
reflects Dr. Parker also reviewed records from the University
of Washington Pain Medicine Clinic, where Plaintiff was
treated for fibromyalgia. AR 849. Dr. Parker's opinion
was based on her clinical observations, Plaintiff's
self-reporting, and a longitudinal record review, including
records from the clinic which treats Plaintiff's
fibromyalgia. See 849-53. As such, the ALJ's
finding that Dr. Parker's opinion is entitled to little
weight because she only treated Plaintiff for a short period
of time and did not treat Plaintiff for fibromyalgia are not
specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial
the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Parker's opinion
because her opinion that Plaintiff was limited in pushing and
pulling in her upper extremities was inconsistent with the
record. AR 21. The record shows Plaintiff had “5/5
strength in the bilateral upper and lower extremities”
during a December 2011 exam. AR 767. Plaintiff appears to
concede the ALJ's reason for discounting Dr. Parker's
push and pull limitations is valid. Dkt. 11, pp. 5-6.
However, she argues the ALJ did not provide adequate reasons
for rejecting the remaining limitations opined to by Dr.
Parker. Id. The Court agrees. As discussed above,
the ALJ's first reason for discounting Dr. Parker's
entire opinion is not valid. Additionally, while the ALJ has
provided a reason for discounting Dr. Parker's push and
pull limitation, the AJL has provided no other reasons for
discounting the rest of her opinion. Thus, the Court finds
the ALJ has not provided specific, legitimate reasons
supported by substantial evidence for discounting Dr.
Parker's entire opinion.
above stated reasons, the Court finds the ALJ erred when he
gave little weight to Dr. Parker's opinion.
“[H]armless error principles apply in the Social
Security context.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d
1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012). An error is harmless, however,
only if it is not prejudicial to the claimant or
“inconsequential” to the ALJ's
“ultimate nondisability determination.” Stout
v. Commissioner, Social Security Admin., 454 F.3d 1050,
1055 (9th Cir. 2006); see Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115.
The determination as to whether an error is harmless requires
a “case-specific application of judgment” by the
reviewing court, based on an examination of the record made
“‘without regard to errors' that do not
affect the parties' ‘substantial
rights.'” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1118-19
(quoting Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 407
ALJ properly considered Dr. Parker's opinion, he may have
included additional limitations in the RFC and in the
hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert
(“VE”), Paul Prachyl. See AR 18, 73-75.
For example, Dr. Parker opined that Plaintiff's ability
to reach and handle is limited to an occasional basis.
See AR 851-52. The RFC did not contain this
limitation. AR 18. If the limitations found by Dr. Parker
were included in the RFC and in the hypothetical question