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Matthews v. Berryhill

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

December 14, 2017

JOSEPH JUNIOR MATTHEWS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Joseph Junior Matthews filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's applications for 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. 3.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in his assessment of the medical opinion evidence from Dr. Richard Green, M.D. Had the ALJ properly considered this evidence, the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) may have included additional limitations. The ALJ's error is therefore not harmless, 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.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 13, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability as of March 25, 2013. See Dkt. 6, Administrative Record (“AR”) 151. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 151. Thereafter, Plaintiff had two ALJ hearings. ALJ Glenn G. Meyers held the first hearing on October 5, 2015. AR 40-80. In a decision dated October 29, 2015, ALJ Meyers found Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 151-66. However, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review, which vacated ALJ Meyers' decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim to ALJ Meyers. AR 173-75.

         ALJ Meyers held a second hearing on October 25, 2016. AR 83-119. In a decision dated November 28, 2016, ALJ Meyers again found Plaintiff to be not disabled. AR 16-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's second request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-4; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In Plaintiff's Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to include in the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert (“VE”) that Plaintiff can only stand or sit for up to 20 minutes at one time; and (2) making a determination in the RFC that Plaintiff would only be absent twelve times per year. Dkt. 8, pp. 5-13.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant 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 Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly accounted for Dr. Green's opined limitation that Plaintiff can only stand or sit for up to 20 minutes.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to include in the hypothetical questions posed to the VE the opined limitation from Dr. Richard Green, M.D., that Plaintiff cannot stand or sit for periods greater than 20 minutes. Dkt. 8, pp. 5-8. Although Plaintiff frames this issue as the ALJ's failure to include a physician's opined limitation in the VE's hypothetical questions, the issue is more accurately framed regarding whether the ALJ properly considered all of Dr. Green's opined limitations. See Id. at 7 (Plaintiff noting “[t]he ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of Dr. Green, who found that the claimant cannot stand for more than twenty minutes, ” even though the ALJ failed to include this limitation in the VE's hypothetical questions).

         The ALJ “need not discuss all evidence presented.” Vincent ex rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984). However, the ALJ “may not reject ‘significant probative evidence' without explanation.” Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 570-71 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Vincent, 739 F.2d at 1395). The “ALJ's written decision must state reasons for disregarding [such] evidence.” Id. at 571. Furthermore, an RFC must take into account all of an individual's limitations. Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). Thus, an ALJ errs when he provides an incomplete RFC ignoring “significant and probative evidence.” Jones v. Colvin, 2015 WL 71709, at *5 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 6, 2015) (citing Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012)).

         Dr. Green provided an assessment of Plaintiff, in which he described Plaintiff's medical conditions and functional limitations. AR 1727-33. In relevant part, Dr. Green opined Plaintiff “is unable to . . . ...


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