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Meadows v. Berryhill

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

December 5, 2017

CHARLIE MEADOWS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING CASE FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          JOHN C. COUGHENOUR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Charlie Meadows seeks review of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). Mr. Meadows contends the ALJ erred in (1) finding fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) were not medically determinable impairments at step two; and, (2) weighing the opinion of Jacob Teitelbaum M.D. Dkt. 9 at 1. Mr. Meadows further contends that evidence submitted to the Appeals Council in seeking review of the ALJ's decision undermines the evidentiary basis for the ALJ's step two finding that fibromyalgia and CFS were not medically determinable impairments. Id. at 13. 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 January 15, 2014, Mr. Meadows protectively filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of January 1, 2010. Tr. 37. Mr. Meadows' applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 37, 212-21. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on August 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr. Meadows not disabled. Tr. 37-52.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:
Step one: Mr. Meadows has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date.
Step two: Mr. Meadows has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder and avoidant personality disorder.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Mr. Meadows can perform medium work with additional limitations. He can occasionally kneel. He cannot operate foot control with his left, lower extremity. He must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants. He could perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions. He could do work that needs little or no judgment and could perform simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period. He requires a work environment with minimal supervisor contact. Minimal contact does not preclude all contact, rather it means contact does not occur regularly (Minimal contact also does not preclude simple and superficial exchanges and it does not preclude being in proximity to the supervisor.). He can work in proximity to co-workers but not in a cooperative or team effort. He requires a work environment that has no more than superficial interactions with co-workers. He requires a work environment that is predictable and with few work setting changes. He requires a work environment without public contact.
Step four: Mr. Meadows cannot perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Meadows can perform, he is not disabled.

Tr. 37-52. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Meadow's request for review making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1-3.[3]

         DISCUSSION

         Mr. Meadows contends the ALJ erred at step two in finding his fibromyalgia and CFS were not medically determinable impairments. Dkt. 9 at 1. This issue is interconnected with the question of whether new evidence from Mr. Meadow's treating doctor submitted to the Appeals Council for the first time in requesting review undermines the ALJ's decision. Dkt. 9 at 13. Accordingly, the Court will address these two issues in tandem.

         The ALJ found fibromyalgia and CFS were not medically determinable impairments. Tr. 41-43. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and found it did not establish the impairments met the requirements of Social Security Rulings (SSRs) 12-2p[4] and 14-1p.[5] The ALJ further found Dr. Teitelbaum's opinion diagnosing these impairments and finding them disabling was entitled to no weight, and that the opinions of Norman Staley, M.D., finding no severe physical impairments, and Gary Gaffield, M.D., finding no tender points on examination and no physical limitations, were entitled to great weight. Tr. 40-43. However, in requesting review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, Mr. Meadows submitted a subsequent opinion from his treating physician, Casey Lien, M.D., dated February 8, 2016, which undermines the ALJ's step two findings. Tr. 716-24. The Appeals Council considered Dr. Lien's opinion in denying review of the ALJ's decision and made it a part of the record. Tr. 1-3. “[W]hen the Appeals Council considers new evidence in deciding whether to review a decision of the ALJ, that evidence becomes part of the administrative record, which the district court must consider in determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012). Thus, it was appropriate for the Court to consider this evidence in evaluating the ALJ's findings.

         Here, Dr. Lien's opinion specifically diagnoses Mr. Meadows with fibromyalgia and CFS and lists signs and symptoms which appear to satisfy the criteria of SSR 12-2p and SSR 14-1p. Tr. 716-24. Dr. Lien further indicates that other possible disorders or impairments have been excluded through methods including blood tests and examination by a psychologist. Id. He opines that these impairments caused Mr. Meadows marked limitations in the areas of activities of daily living and concentration, persistence and pace and severe limitations in social functioning. Tr. 724. He opines that, due to these impairments, Mr. Meadows is incapable of even low stress work, that he would miss more than four days of work per month, and that he would not have the stamina and endurance to work even an easy full-time job. Tr. 722-24. He further indicates that these impairments and symptoms have been long-standing. Specifically, he notes that Mr. Meadow's history of fatigue is chronic and that he has tried many treatment attempts and specialists which have thus far been unsuccessful. Tr. 716. He also notes that since he ...


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