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Ezell v. Berryhill

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

April 16, 2018

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


          David W. Christel, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Larry Darnell Ezell filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of his applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and 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. 2.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in failing to properly consider the medical opinion of Dr. Knapp. Had the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence, the ALJ may have determined Plaintiff is disabled or included additional limitations in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. Therefore, the ALJ's error is harmful and this matter should be reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         On February 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of June 15, 2014. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 83-84. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and reconsideration. See AR 135-38, 139-144. A hearing was held before ALJ Kimberly Boyce on September 26, 2016. See AR 35-82. On November 21, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 17-34. On August 22, 2017, Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's November 21, 2016 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-6; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider: (1) the opinions of Dr. Geordie Knapp, Psy.D., Dr. Norman Staley, M.D, Dr. John Robinson, Ph.D.; (2) the lay witness testimony of Plaintiff's mother, Clara Ezell; and (3) the RFC and step five findings. Dkt. 12.


         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)).


         I. Whether the ALJ properly considered the medical opinion evidence.

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical opinion evidence of Dr. Knapp, Dr. Staley and Dr. Robinson. Dkt. 12 at 6-14.

         A. Dr. Knapp, examining psychologist

         Plaintiff first contends the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of examining psychologist, Dr. Knapp. Dkt. 12 at 6-11. The ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of either a treating or examining physician. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 422 (9th Cir. 1988); Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 506 (9th Cir. 1990)). When a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted, the opinion can be rejected “for specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Lester, 81 F.3d at 830-31 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995); Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 502 (9th Cir. 1983)). The ALJ can accomplish this by “setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         On January 28, 2015, Dr. Knapp conducted a psychological evaluation and reviewed the 2008 psychological evaluation by Dr. Richard Washburn, Ph.D. AR 334-38 (Dr. Knapp's evaluation), 341-45 (Dr. Washburn's 2008 evaluation). Dr. Knapp diagnosed Plaintiff with “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, chronic” (PTSD), and “Major Depressive Disorder, recurrent, severe without psychotic features.” AR 335.

         Dr. Knapp opined Plaintiff had a global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) score of 43. AR 336. He found Plaintiff is markedly limited in his ability to understand, remember, and persist in tasks by following detailed instructions; perform routine tasks without special supervision; make simple work-related decisions; and ask simple questions or request assistance. AR 336. Dr. Knapp also opined Plaintiff is severely limited in his ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary allowances without special supervision; communicate and perform effectively in a ...

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