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Rought v. Berryhill

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

October 25, 2017

TARA J. ROUGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING CASE FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          Hon. Richard A. Jones United States District Judge

         Tara J. Rought seeks review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Ms. Rought contends the ALJ erred in: (1) misevaluating the opinions of several treating and examining doctors; and (2) giving greater weight to the opinions of non-examining doctors than treating and examining opinions. Dkt. 12. Ms. Rought contends these errors resulted in a residual functional capacity (RFC) determination that failed to account for all of her limitations. Id. at 15-16. As relief, Ms. Rought requests that this matter be reversed and remanded for payment of benefits or, alternatively, for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 1. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         On July 28, 2009, Ms. Rought applied for benefits, alleging disability as of May 14, 2009. Tr. 20, 140-43, 155. Ms. Rought's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 103. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on January 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Rought not disabled.[2] Tr. 429-55.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found:

Step one: Ms. Rought has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 28, 2009, the application date.
Step two: Ms. Rought has the following severe impairments: affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and a personality disorder.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[4]
Residual Functional Capacity: Ms. Rought can perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: she can perform simple, repetitive tasks. She can concentrate for two hours at a time with usual and customary breaks throughout an eight-hour workday. She can work superficially and occasionally with the general public. She can work in the same room with an unlimited number of coworkers but not in coordination with them; with this limitation, it is expected that the claimant can maintain appropriate behavior in the workplace, and not be a distraction to her co-workers. The claimant can interact superficially with co-workers and can interact occasionally with supervisors and, with this limitation, the claimant can accept criticism and respond appropriately. She can make simple workplace judgments consistent with simple, repetitive work. With these limitations, that she can tolerate the pressures of work and maintain attendance and punctuality.
Step four: Ms. Rought cannot perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Rought can perform, she is not disabled.

Tr. 429-45. Ms. Rought filed a complaint with this Court appealing the ALJ's decision. Dkt. 3.[5]

         DISCUSSION

         A. Medical Evidence

         The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing reasons” to reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining doctor. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830, 831 (9th Cir. 1996). When contradicted, a treating or examining doctor's opinion may not be rejected without “specific and legitimate reasons” that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id.

         1. Cheryl O. Hart, Psy.D.

         Dr. Hart examined Ms. Rought in 2009. Tr. 339-43. She opined Ms. Rought had “sufficient persistence, pace, and concentration to succeed in a competitive workplace provided that she works in a low-stress, low anxiety workplace doing non-mathematical tasks. She is considered, at a minimum, capable of performing simple, repetitive tasks out of direct contact with the public with minimal to moderate contact with coworkers.” Tr. 343.

         The ALJ gave “great weight” to Dr. Hart's opinion but failed to either include Dr. Hart's restriction to low-stress jobs in the RFC or provide a specific and legitimate reason for rejecting such limitation. Tr. 440. This was error. Contrary to the Commissioner's argument, the other limitations to simple, repetitive tasks out of direct contact with the public with minimal to moderate contact with coworkers does not adequately account for Dr. Hart's separate limitation to a low-stress or low-anxiety workplace. As indicated in Social Security Ruling 85-15:

The reaction to the demands of work (stress) is highly individualized, and mental illness is characterized by adverse responses to seemingly trivial circumstances. The mentally impaired may cease to function effectively when facing such demands as getting to work regularly, having their performance supervised, and remaining in the workplace for a full day....Any impairment-related limitations created by an individual's response to demands of work... must be reflected in the RFC assessment.

SSR 85-15, available at 1985 WL 56857 at *6; see Sampson v. Colvin, 2015 WL 5024076 at *3 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 25, 2015) (ALJ erred in failing to address doctor's limitation to “low stress” jobs, RFC limitation to simple, routine jobs did not adequately account for the limitation); Mostafavinassab v. Colvin, 2016 WL 4547129 at *9 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 1, 2016). The ALJ erred in failing to address Dr. Hart's low-stress restriction entirely. See Marsh v. Colvin, 7 ...


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