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Adams v. Berryhill

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

January 18, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when she did not provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion of treating physician Daniel Shelton, D.O., and that the ALJ's error was harmful. The Court therefore finds that defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed, and that this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.


         On November 19, 2013 plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that he became disabled beginning June 1, 2010. Dkt. 6; Administrative Record (AR) at 166. That application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. AR 68, 78. A hearing was held before an ALJ, at which plaintiff appeared and testified as did a vocational expert. AR 31.

         In a decision dated December 29, 2015, the ALJ documented his analysis at each of the five steps. AR 14-26. Steps one, two and three were resolved in plaintiff's favor. AR 20. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had a severe back impairment caused by degenerative disc disease. AR 20. The ALJ considered plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), AR 22, and found, at step four, that plaintiff could perform his past relevant work and therefore that he was not disabled. AR 21-26. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on May 22, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, which plaintiff then appealed in a complaint filed with this Court on July 6, 2017. AR 4; Dkt. 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.98.

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence of Dr. Shelton.


         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). 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). If more than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the evidence, then the Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)). The Court may not affirm by locating a quantum of supporting evidence and ignoring the non-supporting evidence. Orn v. Astrue, at 630.

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not rely. Id. Only the reasons identified by the ALJ are considered in the scope of the Court's review. Id.


         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion evidence submitted by treating physician Daniel Shelton, D.O., when the ALJ evaluated plaintiff's RFC. Dkt. 8 at 2. Plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision rejecting Dr. Shelton's opinion is not supported by substantial evidence. Dkt. 8.

         Three types of physicians may offer opinions in Social Security cases: “(1) those who treat[ed] the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine[d] but d[id] not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine[d] nor treat[ed] the claimant (non-examining physicians).” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996). A treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than the opinion of a doctor who examined but did not treat the plaintiff, and an examining physician's opinion is generally entitled to more weight than that of a non-examining physician. Id. A non-examining physician's opinion may constitute substantial evidence if “it is consistent with other independent evidence in the record.” Id. at 830-31; Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001). An ALJ need not accept the opinion of a treating physician, “if that opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings” or “by the record as a whole.” Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 957 (9th Cir. 2002); Tonapetyan, at 1149.

         Even when a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, an ALJ may only reject that opinion “by providing specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)). However, the ALJ “need not discuss all evidence presented” to him or her. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why ‚Äúsignificant ...

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