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Boldt v. Berryhill

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

November 21, 2017

BRUCE ELLIOTT BOLDT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          THERESA L. FRICKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Bruce Elliott Boldt has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13.

         Mr. Boldt seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence. Specifically, Mr. Boldt contends that the ALJ erred by failing to consider the opinion evidence of an examining physician, Dr. John Kooiker, M.D., and a treating psychologist, Dr. Carole DeMarco, Ph.D. Dkt. 11, pp. 2-7. Mr. Boldt also argues the ALJ's failure to properly evaluate the medical evidence caused further error because the error in assessing medical evidence led to error in determining Mr. Boldt's RFC, and also led to error in finding Mr. Boldt could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Dkt. 11, p. 7. For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees. Accordingly, the Court will reverse the decision to deny benefits and remand for further administrative proceedings.

         On December 10, 2012, Mr. Boldt filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging that he became disabled beginning October 25, 2005. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 13. That application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) in June 2014. AR 55-88. Mr. Boldt appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. AR 13. In a written decision in August 2014, the ALJ found that Mr. Boldt could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. AR 164-80.

         The Appeals Council later vacated that decision and remanded it to the ALJ. AR 13. On remand, the ALJ held another hearing, on March 22, 2016. AR 89-125. Mr. Boldt testified again, as did a vocational expert. Id. In a written decision on August 19, 2016, the ALJ again found that Mr. Boldt could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. AR 13-32. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Boldt's request for review on February 10, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Mr. Boldt then appealed that decision in a complaint filed with this Court on March 28, 2017. Dkt. 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         I. STANDARD AND SCOPE OF REVIEW

         The Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.520. If the ALJ finds the claimant disabled or not disabled at any particular step, the ALJ makes the disability determination at that step and the sequential evaluation process ends. See id. At issue here is the ALJ's weighing of different pieces of medical evidence and his resulting assessment of Mr. Boldt's RFC and conclusion that Mr. Boldt could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         This Court affirms an ALJ's determination that a claimant is not disabled if the ALJ applied “proper legal standards” in weighing the evidence and making the determination and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). This requires “‘more than a mere scintilla, '” though “‘less than a preponderance'” of the evidence. Id. (quoting Desrosiers, 846 F.2d at 576). In reviewing the record, the Court must weigh both the evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision and evidence that detracts from that decision, considering the record as a whole. Id. at 675. The Court's scope of review is limited to the reasons provided by the ALJ in his or her decision; the Court may not affirm on a ground that the ALJ did not rely upon. Id.

         This Court will uphold the ALJ's findings if “inferences reasonably drawn from the record” support them. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If more than one rational interpretation may be drawn from the evidence, then this Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).

         II. MEDICAL OPINION EVIDENCE

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the evidence is inconclusive, “‘questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts are functions solely of the [ALJ]'” and this Court will uphold those conclusions. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982)). As part of this discretion, the ALJ determines whether inconsistencies in the evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant” in deciding how to weigh medical opinions. Id. at 603.

         The ALJ must support his or her findings with “specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. To do so, the ALJ sets out “a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, ” interprets that evidence, and makes findings. Id. The ALJ does not need to discuss all the evidence the parties present but must explain the rejection of “significant probative evidence.” Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). The ALJ may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. And the Court itself may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         “The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given ‘controlling weight' so long as it ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.'” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675. In general, the ALJ gives more weight to a treating physician's opinion than to the opinions of physicians who do not treat the claimant. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). Nonetheless, an ALJ need not accept a treating physician's opinion that “is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings” or “by the record as a whole.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1195; see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001).

         To reject the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician, an ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). When other evidence contradicts the treating or examining physician's opinion, the ALJ must still provide “specific and legitimate reasons, ” supported by substantial evidence, to reject that opinion. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675. An ALJ should weigh the physician's opinion according to factors such as the nature, extent, and length of the physician-patient working relationship, the frequency of examinations, whether the physician's opinion is supported by and consistent with the record, and the specialization of the physician. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6). Finally, a non-examining physician's opinion may constitute substantial evidence for an ALJ's findings if that opinion “is consistent with other independent evidence in the record.” Tonapetyan, 242 F.3d at 1149.

         A. Examining Psychiatrist: ...


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